Extracting resources from under the ground is an expensive and environmentally harmful thing to do. It’s also political challenging in many places to open (or expand) new mining operations, the recent court ruling in Panama demonstrates this. For decades we’ve been tossing perfectly good metals into landfills, so why not mine landfills? In some parts of the world it is economically feasible to so, but in the USA subsidized fossil fuels make the business case to mine landfills more difficult. Still, it’s only a matter of time until landfill mining becomes profitable in North America.
This story showcases one of the issues facing landfill mining in the United States. In Europe, where they view landfills more negatively, they’ve been mining old landfill sites for decades. So why isn’t it more popular here? In simple terms, we have a separate set of motivations. Energy costs are still comparatively low because of the availability of fossil fuels and natural gas, so we don’t value the energy potential of waste buried in landfills. There is not a strong appetite for energy from waste in many locations that could benefit from the energy value of buried plastics and undegraded organic material. Landfill mining is expensive relative to the cost of developing a new landfill site or just transporting waste to a regional disposal facility in someone else’s backyard. The costs for excavation, physical screening, and managing odors and liquids can be significant barriers.
The popularity of landfill mining may increase over time, with some shifts in the factors above. In the meantime, we’ll continue to monitor Europe and Asia as they explore cost-effective methods. My 25 years of experience in landfills as a solid waste consulting engineer indicates that landfill mining is an intriguing proposition. But will it become a sizable portion of my practice in the next 15 years? Let’s just say I am not pinching my nose or holding my breath.