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How Even the "Dirtiest" of Industries Can Help Fight Climate Change

Across the length and breadth of Europe are scattered some 500,000 operational and inactive landfills, each containing mountains of trash – and as much as 18 million tons of raw materials. Since 1953, people have been mining these landfills to recover raw materials or extricate pollutants. But recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in trash as an untapped resource – showing that when it comes to building sustainable economies, even industries that have struggled to shake off their “dirty” reputation, from waste management to auto production to mining, have a role to play.

Sixty miles east of Brussels, Group Machiels, a Belgian waste management company, is planning to turn the decades-old Remo landfill into a test case for what it calls “enhanced landfill mining.” The firm is seeking permission to excavate the Remo site, separate out metals and recyclable materials, “gassify” the remainder of the landfill’s waste with “plasma” technology, and then burn the gas to generate renewable energy. Machiels will then take what remains after the burning – the slag from this whole operation – and turn it into a new, marketable building material called “plasmarok.”

Excavating Remo will require an investment of “hundreds of millions of euros,” says Machiels partner Advanced Plasma Power. But the payoff could be even bigger. Stuart Wagland, an energy lecturer at Cranfield University, estimates that as much as 25% of Europe’s landfills have enough resources to be worth mining. Taken as a percentage of 500,000 sites averaging up to 18 million tons, that suggests there’s in excess of two billion tons of solid waste that could potentially be turned into raw materials, construction materials, and energy.

Not only could these methods produce new materials affordably and sustainably, but they could also help address the methane and carbon dioxide that are emitted from landfills – and that rank among the major contributors to global warming.

The Global Methane Initiative, an international public-private initiative partnered with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, estimates that 11% of all methane emissions globally come from landfills. And methane is said to be 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas in the first 20 years after it enters the atmosphere. Yet methods like “enhanced landfill mining” can help drastically shrink the volume of solid waste housed in landfills, attacking the problem at its root.

The multiple potential payoffs from Machiels’ initiative thus show that thinking sustainably means not only working to reduce emissions, but also finding new ways to turn what’s been seen as a “problem” into something of value – questioning everything from outdated waste management methods to raw materials production, supply chain management, and sourcing for industry and consumer goods. Enhanced landfill mining, which could result in the recovery of millions of dollars’ worth of metals like aluminum, copper, and lithium and help generate fuel for houses, heavy industry, and autos, is thus only one arrow in the quiver. Using low-carbon methods to produce commodities before they enter landfills is another – and one that’s receiving growing interest from industry and consumers.

Indeed, recent years have seen a surge in demand for low-carbon metals, minerals, and other key components for a range of consumer goods. This has been especially key in sectors like the auto industry, that depend on cobalt, copper, and other materials that have a high human or environmental cost. For instance, inspired in part by car buyers’ willingness to pay more for electric vehicles, automakers like BMW, Daimler, Ford, and even Volkswagen – a company with special incentive to burnish its green credentials – recently came together to form a “Drive Sustainability” coalition. Following a meeting in Brussels last year, members pledged to respect environmental and ethical standards in raw materials sourcing, using incentives such as rewards for sustainable minerals producers.

Already, producers have begun to respond to demand from the auto and other industries for sustainable raw materials. Rusal, the world’s biggest aluminum producer outside of China, already powers 90% of its aluminum smelters using low-emission hydroelectricity from its 15GW worth of hydropower plants in Siberia. In November, the firm launched a new low-carbon certification program and “green” brand of aluminum known as Allow, which is produced with less than 4 tons of CO2 per ton of aluminum in comparison with the global average of 12 tons. Norway’s Norsk Hydro also emits relatively low levels of carbon dioxide per ton of aluminum, especially in contrast with Chinese producers, which get 90% their energy from coal-fired plants. Late last year, following Rusal’s example, Norsk became the latest of the top producers to announce that it would begin charging more to produce two separate brands of “low carbon” aluminum manufactured with use of hydropower, recycled aluminum, or both.

The trend encompasses other metals and minerals producers, as well. In Chile, state-owned copper company Codelco has begun factoring environmental impact into how it prices its copper. And higher up the supply chain, iron miners are reporting they’re able to charge as much as $20 more a ton for high-grade iron ore (which takes less energy to refine) than for low-grade ore.

Crucially, after years of struggling to make ends meet in such ventures, there are growing signs that low-carbon raw materials production and schemes like “enhanced landfill mining” can be profitable. Already, the market has begun paying higher prices for “green” metals, suggesting the creation of permanent price divergence in commodities markets. There are also signs that raw materials extracted from landfill sites and powered by incineration of unrecyclable waste could enjoy similarly higher prices, making them more profitable than “new” raw materials mined in the traditional manner.

When combined with the cost savings of not having to seek out and obtain rights to exploit untapped resources in the ground by being able to simply mine one of Europe’s half-million trash dumps, this could make initiatives like landfill mining even more profitable – and a win-win for all.

Photo Credit: 10cuidados via Flickr

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