The database could even be open sourced for access by the industry, constituting a centralized platform for metals which would help predict material availability and assist with the development of a material resale market. According to the UK’s Circular Metals project, a secondary metals industry focused on reuse is set to generate £20 billion ($25.3 billion) a year by 2030.
“Right now, if you take steel out of a building, you pay to store it somewhere,” says Hoolahan. “Instead of a Depop model, where the seller hangs onto something until it’s been bought, I’m imagining more of an ASOS Marketplace, where you sell directly to an organization and they’re the retailer from then onwards.” Engaging local authorities to make this a reality is key, as they may be able to host one-stop spaces and facilities for storage, checking, testing, and refurbishing.
Material passports offer up considerable possibility if combined with the use of digital twins: virtual replicas for buildings that can be used for anything from turning lights off in rooms to checking how solar panels might improve a building’s energy performance. “These digital twins could cover the whole city,” says Nichol. “One could identify the buildings set for demolition, where the materials are, who certified them, and their strengths, and create a local supply chain.”
Plenty needs to happen before urban mining goes mainstream, namely the growth of an established marketplace and infrastructures to support the practice. Offering steel for reuse that’s cheaper than a new equivalent will also be imperative, helping to smooth the process of other materials to follow, namely concrete, which is the second biggest pollutant. Architects would have to change the way they design in the world of reuse, and loosen their process so as to shop from current market availability rather than trying to serve a particular model.
For this to work, developers, managers, and renovators will have to work together. “Lots of people have been advocates of urban mining for many years,” says Nichol. “But it’s those controlling the development who must make the decision and take the perceived risk. It took us a lot of work—not everyone is interested in doing that.”
Enshrining low-carbon building practices, including urban mining, in law is another missing piece in the puzzle. “As a structural engineer, there is nothing in regulation, code, or law forcing me to invest in circular economies—it is a moral choice,” says Webster. Developers might have net-zero carbon pledges to meet, but this only covers the carbon used for operation, not the embodied carbon.
“People are smarter than just accepting net-zero carbon claims, so if it’s highly polluting but just offset they’ll see through that, particularly young people going into big organizations who demand that level of depth and authenticity,” says Nichol. The chance to cut carbon emissions by such large quantities, whether or not it’s to appeal to the moral compass of modern-day office workers, should not be ignored. As global temperatures teeter closer to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the argument for urban mining feels more urgent than ever.
WIRED has teamed up with Jobbio to create WIRED Hired, a dedicated career marketplace for WIRED readers. Companies who want to advertise their jobs can visit WIRED Hired to post open roles, while anyone can search and apply for thousands of career opportunities.
More Great WIRED Stories