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Sarah Fluchs / Adriana Neligan IW-Report No. 2 16. January 2023 Urban mining for a circular economy: How high are the raw material potentials through urban mining?

Natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, one reason being that significantly more natural raw materials are currently being mined and processed worldwide than Earth can provide over the same period.

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How high are the raw material potentials through urban mining?
Sarah Fluchs / Adriana Neligan IW-Report No. 2 16. January 2023

Urban mining for a circular economy: How high are the raw material potentials through urban mining?

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German Economic Institute (IW) German Economic Institute (IW)

Natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce, one reason being that significantly more natural raw materials are currently being mined and processed worldwide than Earth can provide over the same period.

As a net importer of raw materials, the German economy is dependent on international trade, especially when it comes to materials for future technologies. For this reason, thinking in cycles will be key for improving resource efficiency. The entire life cycle of a resource – from its provision and use to its recovery at the end of life – must be considered and optimized accordingly.

In this context, urban mining can be considered as a component of a circular economy. Although the use of urban mines cannot cover the entire concept of a circular economy, urban mining can play an essential role as an additional source of raw materials. Particularly against the background of the tense raw material situation, this potential must be utilized in the overall economy to save and reuse resources on the one hand and to reduce dependence on international raw material markets on the other. The stock of materials that Germany has built up offers important potential for reusing raw materials that have already been mined and for keeping them circulating.

This report highlights the potential of urban mining for a more efficient use of natural resources and thus for a circular economy. Using the example of discarded cell phones in German households, it is demonstrated which possibilities there are in Germany to reuse materials that are already circulating and are no longer used. Calculations show that the total material value of discarded cell phones in Germany is around 240 million euros. At the same time, the material value of new smartphones sold in Germany in 2021 is equivalent to 23.5 million euros. This ratio shows the enormous potential of the available material stock, which must be exploited for an efficient circular economy. This report analyzes specific options for action to support a circular economy in four circular strategies (enable, close, create and extend cycles) from a consumer perspective. However, it remains important to note that recycling must continue to be optimized to be economically viable. It is only one among many circular strategies. According to the waste hierarchy, strategies that avoid waste, i.e., by addressing the product design, or that reuse goods or components are preferable to those that recycle materials. This is equally true for urban mines.

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How high are the raw material potentials through urban mining?
Sarah Fluchs / Adriana Neligan IW-Report No. 2 16. January 2023

Urban mining for a circular economy: How high are the raw material potentials through urban mining?

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German Economic Institute (IW) German Economic Institute (IW)

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