Wheels of Metals: Urban Mining for a Circular Economy


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Metals are ubiquitous – they are all around us – and provide a foundation upon which our economies are built. Economic development is deeply coupled with the use of metals. During the 20th century the production has increased exponentially, and the variety of metal applications in society has grown rapidly. In addition to mass applications such as steel in buildings, copper in wires and aluminium in airplanes, more and more metals are required for innovative technologies such as the use of rare earth elements in renewable energy systems. 

Worldwide, and in particular in emerging economies, the demand for metals is rapidly increasing. The continued increase in metals demand and use over the 20th century has led to substantial social, economic and environmental challenges. Mining activities expand but easily accessible deposits are becoming scarce. As a result, the supply of critical metals is under an increasing pressure. This implies recycling, also referred to as “urban mining”, is of growing importance in generating raw materials. In the end, the only really effective solution to the metals challenge may be to move towards a circular economy. 

To be able to do that, information is needed on metal stocks in society, their size and residence time, as well as on the technologies that are available to recover these metals when the stocks become obsolete. This course, based on the reports of the Global Metals Flows Working Group of UNEP’s International Resource Panel (IRP), investigates the nature of the metals challenge and the conditions and the consequences of the way out: a circular economy for metals.


Week 1: Introduction to metals
Week 2: The metals challenge: scarcity, environmental impacts, criticality
Week 3: Metal stocks and flows
Week 4: Re-use and recycling: urban mining
Week 5: Towards a circular economy