The Urban Mining Innovation Centre

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UMIC collage

The Urban Mining Innovation Centre (UMIC) research center is an initiative developed at the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at UBC to provide scientific, business, and social approaches to the recovery of valuable materials/metals from urban waste streams. UMIC is an initiative developed at the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at UBC to provide an opportunity for mineral processing and for environmental and mining engineers to extend their training into recycling—another frontier of engineering science. It provides an opportunity to engage them in conversations beyond what is referred to as classic resource extraction engineering and to create a new paradigm in material flow and waste management that enables a circular economy scenario in the resource industry.

Urban societies create prolific waste streams—75% of the world’s waste is generated from industrialized urban areas. Some of these waste streams contain enormous mineral and metal value. For example, electronic waste has been shown to contain gold and copper grades that sometimes exceed more than 100 times the grades of many operating mines.

In the western world, recycling is seen as a means to conserve resources. However, for some of the disadvantaged people in the developing world, recycling provides a means of living. For example, plastics and electronics are shipped to developing countries where they are manually recycled using rudimentary processes. The working conditions of the recyclers are dangerous, and the pay scales are very low. A combination of appropriate technology innovations and global policy changes around the transboundary movement of waste is needed to mitigate this situation.

UMIC goes beyond the recycling of metals from urban curbside pickup programs; it includes the recovery and use of all waste resources in the municipal environment, some of which may contain metals, minerals or materials from e-waste as well as recovery from other municipal waste streams, such as biosolids from the wastewater treatment plant or even landfills. The development of recycling methods and the recovery of metals from these streams are varied, engaging, and technically challenging. Mining and mineral processing expertise can be used to provide solutions to these challenges. Hence, UMIC is considered as a multi-disciplinary research unit and applies an integrated approach to address these challenges. UMIC has collaborated with several national and international research centers in the past five years, some of which include: Materials and Manufacturing Research Institute (MMRI) at UBC-Okanagan, Polytechnic Montreal, Sao Paulo University, Finish Innovation Fund (SITRA), Aalto University, University of Antioquia, and China University of Mining and Technology.

Prof. Maria Holuszko, a leading scientist at UMIC, has been involved as co-PI in the NSERC, a Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program in collaboration with Prof. Clara Santato from Polytechnic Montreal on the training engineering professionals in Sustainable Electronics and Eco-Design (SEED). This collaboration provides training for engineering professionals in electronics, design, manufacturing, and recycling. This current initiative offers an opportunity to educate a new generation of engineering professionals in the area of urban mining to develop safe and economically viable methods of recovery and repurpose of valuable components from e-waste streams, and to explore alternative extraction and separation techniques with minimal losses of material and environmental impact. It facilitates inter-university training for UBC graduate students and other graduate students from across Canada (Polytechnic Montreal, U of Toronto, U of Waterloo, McGill) in electronic design, manufacturing and recycling.

UMIC will help policymakers in both developed and developing countries transform the current waste management paradigm into a more economically efficient and transparent system, producing value-added products from the various waste streams with improved environmental outcomes.

UMIC has attracted several local recycling companies to collaborate with on the recovery of valuable metals and non-metal fractions from municipal waste streams such as e-waste, LED, and plastic. The research outcomes from the UMIC activities were published in the international journals of high impact factors and relevant to he field of recycling (11 refereed and 2 conference papers). For these activities, Prof. Maria Holuszko was interviewed by the: Radio Canada Environmental (2019); BBC Future (2018); CBC The National News (2018); Radio RED FM, Surrey (2018); Radio Canada International (2018). Media mentions appeared in the: The Engineer UK (2018); The Indian Express (2018); Innovations Magazine (2018); India Today (2018); EurekAlert! (AAAS), R&D, Product Design & Development (2018); Electronics 360 (IEEE GlobalSpec, (2018); Science Daily, Laboratory Equipment, (2018); Recycling International, (2017); The Vancouver Sun, (2017); (2017); Al Jazeera, (2017); and CIM Magazine (2017).

Rationale for UMIC

The Worldwide demand for mined products is increasing. Demand for metals and other construction materials are positively correlated to the increasing world population, so we foresee no near-term softening of demand. Recycling has a huge potential of reducing the use of natural resources and energy. A United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report from 2013 cited evidence that the era of feasible and generally accessible mines is running out, and recycling programs must be better designed and executed to supply future generations with the materials they will need, based on projected levels of consumption. In other words, recycling systems need to fill the gap between current mining production levels and demand. But that last statement needs to be understood in context: it is estimated that only 25% of today’s current demand for metals could be fulfilled from recycling processes, even if metal recycling rates reached 100%. Metals recycling is not an attempt to displace mining; it is a complementary effort required to meet demand when supply-side constraints exist. It also facilitates a circular economy in the material flow to address the mass consumption of electronics in the global context.

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