Urban mining reframes activities formerly regarded as waste management in terms of new resource industries – a rhetorical shift from a "logic of hazard" to "logic of resource" (Kama, 2015). Advocates of a circular economy (Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2014) regard this shift as essential for reversing current trends in resource consumption by substituting recycled materials for virgin resources, despite a lack of evidence to date that recycling impacts on virgin resource consumption (MacBride, 2011). They find support around the world in zero waste initiatives and the proliferation of product stewardship take-back schemes (Hobson, 2015).

So who are the urban miners, what work do they do and what motivates them? To make this task easier, I focus on used electronics and define urban mining as that part of the commodity chain covering their disposal by first owners through to either domestic reuse or recycling or exports of used products or materials. In Australia, a wide range of activities and organizations facilitate the collection and processing of used electronics, from the acquisition, use and disposal practices of first owners in households and businesses, to the wide variety of commercial and not-for-profit organizations involved in collecting and sorting discarded goods (the urban miners), and transporting them to sites of reprocessing. 

Fig. 1. Electronic circuit boards and processors have economic value after collection and sorting.

Fig. 1. Electronic circuit boards and processors have economic value after collection and sorting.

While many parts of these supply chains are clearly profit driven, profit motives alone cannot account for the entire chain, particularly that part that involves disposal of products and materials by their former owners and their collection and transport to central locations where sorting and disassembly is undertaken. It is not until they re-emerge in the form of new commodities that more conventional market dynamics come into play (Figure 1). For this reason a broad conceptualization of economy, such as that offered by the diverse economies framework of Gibson-Graham and their collaborators, is required for understanding the dynamics at play (Gibson-Graham, 2006; Gibson-Graham et al 2013). The diverse economy framework recognizes market transactions as just the tip of the iceberg of economic activity. Below these, and sometimes supporting them, are a wider range of transactions such as gifting and non-monetary exchanges, of labor including domestic labor, voluntary work, cooperative work, and enterprises motivated by social goals other than profit generation (Gibson-Graham, 2006). The diverse economies lens focuses attention on the diversity of valuing practices within the commodity chain, including non-monetary values, and offers insights into the linkages between practices operating at different geographical scales.

The diverse economies lens

Table 1 represents an attempt to capture the diverse economy of the electronics recycling sector in Australia. Included in the top row for market activities are sales of both used goods and component materials in international markets. Included in the bottom row for non-market activities are donations to charities and gifting among friends and relatives but, also, theft and coerced labor through work for the dole schemes. Activities in the middle row I term "mediated market" instead of Gibson-Graham’s category "alternative market" to reflect the observation that so much of the activity in the sector is brokered by government agencies and regulatory measures and, to a lesser extent, by corporate social responsibility initiatives. These include direct government subsidies or contracts for collection of used electronics as well as regulation that requires specific disposal approaches and provides disincentives for dumping through landfill levies and fines. It also includes a wide range of product stewardship take back schemes from voluntary industry initiatives through to co-regulated schemes, and disposal contracts driven by corporate social responsibility policies rather than least cost. Community or charity sector social enterprises are more likely to be engaged in activities facilitating repair and reuse of equipment within Australia where profit margins are low, and commercial enterprises in the more profitable business of exporting used electronics for refurbishing and resale in other countries.

Organization A is a transnational business based in Singapore with reprocessing facilities in Australia (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane), Singapore and China (Figure 2). Most of the certified recycling of electronics collected from Australia is undertaken at its precious metal smelter in Singapore, allowing it to capitalize on the most valuable materials in its e-waste supply chain. Its compliance with international certifications and regulations appeals to large corporations who directly contract it for their e-waste disposal needs. Some large technology brands have their own product stewardship take back schemes and contract Company A to manage them. The level of disassembly conducted at its Sydney facility far exceeds that which would be profitable based on revenue from material sales. However it is considered important for market positioning and is cross subsidised by the highly profitable arms of the business in Singapore and China (Table 2).

Figure 2. Sydney processing centre of Organisation A, a transnational business offering recycling services to large corporations.

Figure 2. Sydney processing center of Organization A, a transnational business offering recycling services to large corporations.

Organization B is an Australian business with e-waste reprocessing facilities in five Australian cities, avoiding the regulatory requirements involved in transporting hazardous waste across state borders.[1] Its highest value commodities are second hand products or components but most clients prefer the materials recycling option. Compared with Organization A, the materials processed originate from a much wider range of sources, including local government waste transfer stations, charity organizations as well as small to medium enterprises (Table 3).

Organization C is a not-for-profit social enterprise primarily focused on disability employment training. Its business model is deliberately labor intensive and allows it to employ large numbers of people in a part time capacity. It receives financial support through government employment training schemes and other social policy targeting the disabled, as well as through government resource recovery programs to increase diversion of materials from landfill. It is contracted by local governments across Melbourne to manage their waste transfer facilities on a cost recovery basis supported by funding grants from government agencies

The three organizations are positioned differently in the Diverse Economy for Electronics Recycling presented in Table 1. Organization A, while primarily engaged in market activities, has developed a market niche based on its capacity to meet the requirements of the Basel Convention and various international certification schemes for electronics processing. Organization B engages in a wider range of mediated market activities, as it collects material from a wider range of sources, including from local government collection services and donations to charity organizations. It has much greater exposure to Australian government policy as all its facilities are located in Australia. Organization C is embedded in a wider range of government policy areas including employment and social policy as well as waste management and resource recovery. Its purpose in undertaking electronics reprocessing is to generate employment. While it engages in a range of market activities, it would not exist without non-market activities and market activities mediated by government policy. It benefits from government policy relating to both employment training objectives and waste diversion from landfill targets, and consequently includes an even wider range of mediated market activities than Organizations A and B. What is most striking when mapping the three organizations using the diverse economies framework is, a) the extent to which organizations can straddle the full spectrum from community to market either in their own activities or through partnership arrangements, and b) the very significant mediating role of government policy and national and international regulatory regimes which affect the activities of both commercial and not-for-profit organizations as shown in the middle row of the table.

Figure 3. Disassembly of used electronics at Organisation C, a disability employer contracted by local governments to run waste transfer facilities on Council land.

Figure 3. Disassembly of used electronics at Organization C, a disability employer contracted by local governments to run waste transfer facilities on Council land.

Figure 4. Australia’s only lead smelter at Port Pirie, South Australia, courtesy ABC.

Figure 4. Australia’s only lead smelter at Port Pirie, South Australia, courtesy ABC.


The diverse economies analysis outlined here highlights the significance of non-market motives in an emerging extractive industry based on used electronics accumulating in Australian cities. It also shows how urban mining supply chains are shaped by product stewardship initiatives that reinforce pathways to materials recycling, rather than reuse, and ensure a level of disassembly takes place in Australia prior to export. This confirms with observations of the impacts of product stewardship regulatory initiatives in other countries (e.g. Tong et al. 2015 on China). Not-for-profit social enterprises are bypassed in the collection stage but acquire new roles in disassembly of products into component materials on a cost recovery basis, work that may previously have been undertaken in other countries lacking equivalent environmental and health standards. As with the EU recycling initiatives discussed by Gregson et al. (2014) the NCTRS is based on an underlying assumption that a viable commercial industry can be generated in a high labor cost country prompted by regulatory incentives. This emphasis on market motives results in a focus on employment opportunities in commercial recycling and associated logistics. However partnerships with social enterprises may be critical for manual disassembly and sorting within Australia and this sector may expand as a result.

The diverse economies lens provides insights into the work of urban mining and its organization in the developed world, in turn, contributing to a much needed critical interrogation of the dynamics of labor in the circular economy as it is enacted through policy and governance initiatives worldwide (Alexandra and Reno, 2012; Gregson et al. 2014; Pickren, 2014; Hobson, 2015). 


[1] Australia introduced national legislation as part of its obligation as a signatory to the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes (Hazardous Waste Reg. of Exp. and Imp.) Act 1989 (Cth).


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