Mine landfills for feedstock resources we need!
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Thousands of end-of-life and existing dumps contain useful materials.
Our view of landfills is typically negative, an environmental disaster zone, emitters of high levels of methane, local polluter, ground water pollution, and odour emitter. It is estimated by various sources that over 4 billion tons of trash a year will contribute to landfills worldwide by 2030. What does this mean to us? Landfills have been around for ages and not until recently we have come to the realization that landfills are a largely untapped resource for many metals.
Valuable recyclable materials formerly regarded as waste can be mined from landfills, providing a new source of feedstock for industry. In the US, more than 4.6 million tons of metal, automotive, industrial and electronic waste are disposed of in landfills. This material has potential to provide a new supply for declining supplies of metals such as the platinum group elements and rare earths.
Landfill Mining, the integrated valorization of landfilled waste streams as materials and energy, enhanced mining extracts valuable materials from both landfilled industrial waste and municipal solid waste.
The potential common sense benefits of mining landfills include reducing the risk of pollution from substandard and under managed landfill or dump sites, reclaiming soil, extending the life of the landfill by reducing the volume of waste or reducing the area of land the landfill occupies, mitigating ground waster contamination and recovering materials such as aluminum, rare earth and ferrous metals, and an opportunity to produce producing energy at municipal waste-to-energy facilities leveraging existing and emerging industrial waste to energy technologies such as pyrolysis.
We are running out of much need REE
Why mine landfills, we are running out of much needed Rare Earth Elements (REE) and other material, we are also running out of the helium we need for MRI scanners and yet we're still putting it into party balloons. We are discarding, burning and burying the same valuable resources we are excavating from the earth to the extent that there is more copper in the ash left over after we burn rubbish than in traditionally mined ore. Arguably, the resources we need are no longer in the ground, but in landfill.
Although the development of landfill mining as a general solution to excessive waste has proved very economically and industrially viable (US Environmental Protection Agency), the application of this method to the harvesting of strategic metals still has fundamental issues. A major hurdle for the mining of landfills for strategic metals is the current limited nature of rare earth recycling. Until rare earths can be extracted and separated from used products in an economically beneficial manner, however, such products can be stockpiled upon reclamation until a time when their strategic elements can be extracted and removed.
As landfill mining becomes more prevalent for other uses such as soil recovery and landfill life extension, new processes for cleaning and reclaiming such materials are being developed and perfected by corporations hoping to benefit from the reusable products of their landfill mining for the purpose of recovering strategic metals will become more prevalent.
Although the costs at first may present an obstacle in gaining the necessary momentum for company participation in landfill mining, the cost of landfill mining will continue to decline as the industry gains experience and as new equipment and techniques become available to make landfill mining more appealing in local areas facing landfill closure or operators desiring to extend the lives of their landfills.
Based on the rising prices and the projected restricted availability stemming from the mining of virgin resources like platinum group elements and rare earths, landfill mining presents a viable, feasible alternative. Still, the supply of necessary resources coming from landfills would be limited, and the recuperation of these elements would only create a temporary supply. Recycling rare earth metals from electronic and industrial waste in landfills close the gap for much needed metals.
Landfill mining processes
Current mining processes, experience and technologies can be implemented at landfill sites and offer a potential – albeit still limited – solution to minimizing the impacts of these landfills, although the practice is emerging and maturing in the recovery industry, landfill mining has shown it can provide tremendous benefits despite cost concerns.
Landfill mining operations extract and reprocess materials from older disposal sites. On the simplest level, the ultimate aim of the process is to “mine” landfills for recyclables or reusable materials which can then be refined or sold as is to the scrap markets. This practice has generally been employed as a means of waste management, with landfills being mined when it becomes necessary to increase space to meet current disposal capacity needs.
We’ve found there are currently multiple techniques being deployed in the mining process. Techniques vary, as sometimes a process must be modified to adapt to and address a specific need. In other cases, the sorting technologies can partly dictate the technique, and resulting processes vary substantially. Common technologies being deployed and tested in landfill mining applications include trommel, disc, or vibratory screens; magnetic separation and often mass excavators.
Costs of landfill mining
Lastly, depending on the nature of the landfill and its waste, the necessary equipment can be expensive to purchase and operate. The costs of landfill mining are exacerbated by the non-uniformity of metals and other desirable materials in the waste. Some projects earn millions in profits, while others languish in the red.
Benefits of landfill mining, although in its infancy, the benefits have huge upsides, it can provide a big advantage to remove a number of hazardous materials from the landfills. As a result, it can help diminish landfill pollution, preserve soil quality and protect surrounding natural resources. Pollution and other hazards from landfill use can also negatively affect communities. Removing materials that could damage soil or prove harmful to the surrounding air or water quality can help protect public health.
Extracted reusable or combustible waste can be monetized. More important, from a long-term perspective, mining also increases the available space in landfills. This can lead to larger cost-saving benefits over the long term. The economic question is very significant for most waste management organizations. While short-term yields from processed materials may be limited, reclamation of space is often a massive cost-saving measure for municipalities and private companies. The good news for everyone is those economic incentives can help drive the waste management costs down for municipalities and improve environmental and health benefits. Another opportunity for landfill operators is enhanced mining techniques can drastically reduce the costs of remediation by combining it with resource recovery. The landfill mining process is also relevant for municipal and city waste landfills, where waste is separated into recyclable materials such as glass, metal, plastic for reuse.
The process involves generating energy and recyclable goods that can provide the revenue to counterbalance the sky-high costs. Higher-value landfills are targeted, such as industrial landfills that may consist of residues from the production of valuable minerals such as aluminum, copper, zinc or steel.
Emerging technologies are making it easier for mining projects to efficiently screen excavated waste and recover materials. This can have a major effect on the economics of landfill mining. More efficient processes mean reduced costs and improved revenue.
Landfill mining has a lot to offer. However, it remains a relatively uncommon practice with a lot of negative perceptions due to a history of overpromising and under-delivering. Nonetheless the emergence of efficient industrial and digital technologies and processes can substantially improve the cost-benefit balance.
Landfill mining and its associated technologies could quickly grow to become a necessity for the global waste management industry. Landfill mining is in a state of continuous change and facies numerous regulatory hurdles. However, with the emergence of and improvements in existing technologies could significantly enhance the benefits of landfill mining while minimizing the costs and improving material monetization.
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Dave Gajadhar is an Advisor, Speaker, Educator, and an Advocate for Human prosperity and resource optimization at Resultant Group, business modernization, waste mitigation. Supply chain integration and transition advisors.
Phone: (780) 483-4800
or contact at Twitter: @dgajadar.
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