IDEA WATCH

One Man’s Trash . . .

Mining landfills for metals and energy

 

By Joshua Jacobs

In a village 60 miles east of Brussels, a Belgian company is fighting to launch an experiment with the future of rubbish disposal. Group Machiels, a waste-management company, wants to excavate millions of tons of decades-old waste buried in one of Europe’s largest landfills and turn it into renewable energy and building materials.

“The sheer number of landfills in Europe is mind-boggling,” says Rolf Stein, chief executive of Advanced Plasma Power, which manufactures the technology that Machiels plans to use at the Remo landfill site. “Why do we need to dig deep into the depths of South Africa and South America and Australia to get crude oil when you have got [waste] materials here, not far below the ground, [that can be repurposed for energy]?”

Remo would be the first such commercial use of landfills and is part of an about-face on the role of rubbish dumps. Landfills have long been viewed as places of festering trash, pollutants, and environmental scares: sites to hide things away from the public eye. The early landfills were glorified dumping holes, largely unprotected and containing toxic materials. “It’s an oxymoron,” says Shyam Dighe, who looked at landfill mining in the United States in the 1980s and is now CEO of AquaSource Technologies. “You don’t mine waste—you mine resources.”

Aspiring miners insist that landfill mining isn’t an oxymoron. The contents of the world’s landfills could harbor significant natural resources—and even financial profit.

But today’s aspiring miners insist that landfill mining isn’t an oxymoron. As demand for metals grows, as governments impose taxes on dumping, and as ballooning cities require ever more space, businesses such as Machiels are increasingly arguing that the contents of the world’s landfills could harbor significant natural resources—and even financial profit.

“More and more cities have an old city dump or a landfill in the middle, and they need the valuable land,” says William Hogland, a professor at Linnaeus University in Sweden. “[With landfill mining] it’s easier to get money for it. You have valuable land for making industry.”

The first known instance of landfill mining occurred in 1953 in Tel Aviv, where the contents were used as fertilizers for orchards. There have been other trials since, including in the United States in the 1980s, but these have been largely focused on remediation—removing contaminants or relocating the waste. The recent resurgence in interest is focused on “enhanced landfill mining,” which treats waste as a good in and of itself.

Yahya Jani, a researcher at Linnaeus University, estimates that more than 50 percent of the waste in landfills and dump sites globally could be recycled in this way, for energy or raw materials. “These materials can be used as secondary resources in different industries instead of being forgotten or viewed as garbage,” he says.

The Remo site would use plasma technology, which heats waste to high temperatures and turns it into a renewable gas. Plasma is already used in several locations around the world to convert new waste into energy without its needing to go to a landfill. Here, the landfill contents would be emptied and filtered for metals and recyclable materials. The remaining material would be gasified into a fuel, with the residues from the process then converted into “plasmarok,” which can be used as a building material.

Remo may be the most prominent enhanced landfill mining operation, but it is just one of numerous sites that researchers are investigating or hoping to explore commercially in Europe, which has become a hub for the field. In March 2017, the European Union approved a directive requiring member states to map landfills and “indicate their potential for enhanced landfill mining” over the next seven years.

Why dig deep into the depths of South Africa and South America and Australia to get crude oil when you’ve got materials here not far below the ground?

The continent is home to more than half a million landfills, according to the European Enhanced Landfill Mining Consortium (EURELCO). Stuart Wagland, an energy lecturer at Cranfield University in Britain, estimates that half of them could be profitably mined.

In Estonia and Sweden, researchers have been inspecting the contents of five landfills, looking at recycling their plastic and metal contents. They estimate that the Baltic Sea Region contains up to 100,000 landfills and dumps that are leaking leachates and greenhouse gases and are at risk of coastal erosion, according to Hogland, who is part of the team.

Inside Remo alone, there are more than 18 million metric tons of waste, and Machiels hopes to recover half of that amount for building materials and half as energy—which could provide power for 200,000 homes over the next 20 years—before turning the site into a nature park.

Despite aspiring miners’ optimism, there are challenges. Getting planning permission to dig up landfills can be a laborious and often prohibitive process. Machiels is currently involved in a legal battle at the Belgian high court, following opposition from local residents. They hope to have an answer as to whether they can go ahead this year. It has been the same picture elsewhere. Hogland has also tried in Turkey, for instance; it can take decades to receive approval, he says.

“Wherever we go in Europe, we are struggling to get the social license to operate,” says Peter Tom Jones, president of EURELCO. “[At Remo] this is leading to major delays—that’s in a way very sad because the environmental credentials have been proven.”

But even if local residents can be persuaded and permission granted, can the technique be made profitable? “Nothing of this has been fully commercialized yet,” says Jones. “We are still at the stage where researchers are showing the benefits from a technology perspective. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating: eventually you need to convince investors to invest in landfill mining in general—this is not happening yet.”

In the 1980s in the United States, Westinghouse Electric looked at remediating landfills in Bloomington, Indiana. They planned to remove the contents and treat them with plasma, but didn’t end up getting permission from the state.

“We have so much land [in the US],” says Jim Little, who was involved with this project. “It was too [much easier] to buy land cheap than [it was] to remediate raw materials. The energy content required to do it was much greater than the revenues we would receive. That is in the US, where raw materials are cheap and you don’t have the environmental [regulatory] considerations around landfills. So, what doesn’t work in the US might very well work in Europe [and elsewhere].”

If and, aspiring miners say, when it is successful in Europe, they hope that the technology will be extended into the developing world, where landfills are often poorly regulated and can contain pollutants. For many, it is not just about gaining resources from landfills—they want rubbish to be part of a circular economy in which resources are recycled and reused and waste is a thing of the past. A utopian vision perhaps, but one which appears increasingly alluring as resources grow scarcer. 

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Joshua Jacobs is a freelance writer based in London. His work has been published in the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the Economist, among other places. This article is adapted from an article written for the Financial Times, from which several of the interviews, research, and writing are taken.

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