‘Urban Mining’: Make Use of Metal Resources Lying Dormant in Household Devices

The recovery and reuse of metal resources from disused electronic appliances and other equipment is becoming an increasingly critical issue. It is vital to secure the cooperation of the public to accelerate the recycling of such resources.

Small-scale devices such as mobile phones and game consoles that have been abandoned or left unused at home contain copper, aluminum and rare metals including lithium and nickel, which are essential for the manufacture of storage batteries and sophisticated motors.

The metal resources used in such devices are often referred to as “urban mines,” drawing an analogy with mines excavated in the ground.

In 2013, the government enacted a law to promote the recycling of small electronic equipment, establishing a system in which local governments and other entities set up recycling boxes to collect disused products such as mobile phones and game consoles with the aim of making effective use of urban mines.

Fewer home electrical appliances are being discarded and domestic recycling has made a certain amount of progress, but there is still scope for expansion.

By weight, only around 500 grams per capita is collected annually from small home electrical appliances. This figure falls far short of the government’s 1-kilogram target. Since Japan has limited resources, efforts should be stepped up toward this goal.

In particular, it is thought that mobile phones are lying dormant in many households. This could be due to concerns over exposing such personal information as emails and photos. It is necessary to establish a system to alleviate such public fears.

Improvements in recycling technology also are essential. Japanese companies are said to lead the world in this field, but the costs associated with such technology are reportedly high, due to its heavy reliance on human labor.

The central government and the private sector are cooperating to develop technology that uses sensors and artificial intelligence to classify equipment by type to make the recovery of metals more efficient, among other efforts. It is hoped that such technology will be swiftly put to practical use.

It is also imperative for Japan to contribute to the international community by disseminating its technology overseas. The government has reached an agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on technical cooperation vis-a-vis urban mines. Under the consensus, experts from Japanese companies will be dispatched to share their expertise on how to dismantle electronic equipment and recover metals from circuit boards.

Concerns have arisen in Southeast Asia — an area currently experiencing rapid economic development — over environmental pollution caused by the disposal of home electrical products. It is significant that Japan will cooperate to resolve this issue.

China is the world’s leading supplier of rare metals. Beijing is using rare metals as a form of “economic coercion” to pressurize other countries, for example, by restricting trade through the imposition of export controls on gallium and germanium.

Also, from an economic-security perspective, it is important to diversify rare metal supply chains through the use of Japanese technology.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Oct. 6, 2023)