business circular economy sustainability

Mining the streets

underground pipe

As the world’s ore reserves deplete, people are turning to a range of solutions to keep up with demand. There’s a new focus on recycling and on closed loop production. ‘Cash for gold’ companies are getting unwanted gold back from the drawers and jewelery boxes of consumers. Councils are investigating landfill mining. Pioneers start-ups in asteroid or lunar mining are taken seriously enough to raise financial backing.

Less positively, mines that were closed because they were too dangerous are re-opened, their owners offering miners more money to work them – the famous Chilean miners were working in these conditions. Thieves stripping cable or pipes for their scrap value is another symptom of the search for metals, with even the odd copper or bronze sculpture going missing from time to time.

I came across another solution recently in the New Scientist – urban mining. It’s a relatively new idea, born out of the hunch that as technology has progressed and cities have grown and changed, there must be all kinds of redundant cabling and piping underneath the streets. These sources of metal have been dubbed ‘comatose’ stocks – reserves of metal that are out of sight in obsolete infrastructure.

Researchers in Sweden have been gathering old and current maps from utility companies and plotting the many networks. In some cities they’ve found that as much as 20% of the city’s pipework is redundant. Their estimate is that there is $630 million of copper alone under Sweden’s cities, with post industrial towns proving more profitable. Considering Britain’s industrial heritage, this should be interesting news.

Identifying the exact location of pipes is difficult and nobody wants to carve up streets and foundations to get the metals out. That needs further research, but it’s happening. Companies are working on 3D mapping technologies to sense and track underground workings, and others have developed ways to strip wiring out without having to dig it up. It’s only a matter of time before somebody starts making a fortune out of the subterranean infrastructure of places like Sheffield or Stoke on Trent.

All of this innovation is business responding to price signals from the markets. It’s what’s supposed to happen as metal stocks deplete, and eventually this sort of metal recycling and recovery will overtake mined ore altogether. Of bigger concern are those resources that can’t be recycled – most notably fossil fuels. There’s still no direct equivalent for oil or natural gas. Given our dependency on them, leaving the transition away from fossil fuels to the markets is a much riskier proposition.


  1. Why is leaving the transition away from fossil fuels to the markets is a much riskier proposition? Who else will do it and why will they be any less risky?

    1. For a variety of reasons, the biggest one being the speed of change that’s needed to avoid climate change. If we had the luxury of half a century, we could leave it to the markets. We need to break the addiction to fossil fuels much quicker than that, and that’s going to need intervention on a bunch of levels.

      Another reason is the economy is highly vulnerable to spikes in the oil price, and diversifying away from fossil fuels will make us much more resilient. Again, the speed matters here.

      The markets will still be instrumental, by the way. I’m just saying we can’t leave it to them alone. Scrap the false incentives (subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels), price in the cost of carbon, provide some start-up investment to accelerate renewable energy, and you’re still working well within a market model.

      1. Removing false incentives is more markets rather than less as its removing government intervention (though the point needs making that there isn’t much subsidy for fossil fuels in the West, its countries like Venezuela and Iran who are the big culprits).

        Another point to bear in mind government isn’t necessarily smarter or faster than the market. The failure of the European ETS is being blamed on the market and that leads to claims more government intervention is needed. The uncomfortable truth is that its failure is down to politicians who didn’t want to offend constituents so gave out too many permits – not market failure, but it couldn’t fix a flawed political system. So it a reminder that government regulation can be poor or even counter-productive (public choice theory is very important here).

        What governments must not do is be proscriptive. They should will ends not means. A rush to wind or solar today would be very wasteful and economically harmful when the technology hasn’t matured, while in a very few years it will be cheaper and less disruptive. We need to balance adaptation with prevention to minimise damage to society and the economy. Governments that rush to pick winners will cost more and will favour technologies and companies that will politically help them rather than what is in the best interests of the wider country/world.

        1. Indeed, I’m talking about removing government intervention propping up fossil fuels, and then switching it to renewable energy. The key, as you say, is to do this in such a way that half-baked ideas don’t get a free ride. I think there should be more money for R+D, especially expensive test projects like Carbon Capture and Storage. The other priority for government is infrastructure, like off-shore connections to encourage wave and wind power, or electric car charging networks.

          Given the pace needed, it’s important to subsidise renewable energy too, and this can be done by supporting decarbonisation rather than specific technologies. For example, tax incentives according to the renewable content of an energy provider’s output wouldn’t prejudice how the company provides the power. As always, there should be time limits set in from the start so that subsidies don’t become a permanent entitlement for all time. (see agriculture)

          The biggest support on fossil fuels in this country is the discounted VAT rate on household energy, although I’m not sure it counts as a true subsidy. I toyed around with what you could do with that here without ever quite convincing myself:

          1. I remember the political ructions when John Major tried to bring in VAT at 15% on domestic fuel. The stories about frozen grannies meant he had to beat a retreat. The 5% VAT is the legacy from then (better than the 0 rate it was before). So any change will find it hard to get public consent.

            Careful with the subsidies, otherwise we get the whole European pantomime of wood as a renewable fuel low carbon (it isn’t until 100 years from now).

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