In situ recovery of resources from waste repositories

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Faculty of Environment and Technology


Having historically disposed of vast quantities of industrial, municipal, metallurgical and mining waste into the ground, societies have put into geological storage an enormous amount of resources in a range of materials of value such as metals and energy (in the form of biomass and polymers). Therefore, instead of considering these waste repositories to be a legacy waste issue and a long-term liability, a paradigm shift is required to view these installations as "resource hubs" for future recovery. The proposed research aims to contribute towards the development of a new and exciting research field related to resource recovery from existing waste repositories and seeks to address the following central question:

Can resources, specifically elements of value (e.g. Au, Pd, Ag, Cu, Pb, Zn, Co, Ni, Sn and Cr), 'E-tech' elements used in clean energy and other environmental applications (e.g. neodymium and other rare earth elements) and energy (through enhanced methane generation) be recovered by leaching and other treatments whilst the material lies in situ, thus avoiding the need to actively mine the material and thereby minimising ecological and environmental impacts?

The fundamental geoscience research question that underpins this is:

How can we understand and manipulate the in situ biogeochemistry of the waste within the geological repository to recover resource?

The rationale behind the research is to examine new technologies for resource recovery with a lower environmental impact than active ('dig and process') mining of wastes, or of virgin ores.

The concept and technology of in situ leaching has been developed in the mining industry for recovery of uranium and copper, and is done by circulating solutions to extract the elements and/or stimulating and enhancing microbial leaching. The possibility of transferring this concept for application to recovery of resource from waste repositories has not been fully addressed previously. Wastes display diverse compositions, mineralogies and textures very different to that of ores and thus will require new science to understand and develop leaching methods to solubilise valuable components.

We will consider resource extraction from the full range of wastes currently in UK waste repositories including industrial and commercial waste (anticipated to be metal-rich), incinerator and fuel ash, mineral wastes and municipal wastes to examine the idea of in situ leaching. We are particularly keen to identify during the grant which types of landfilled waste streams might be relatively enriched in certain resources and focus the research on recovery from these wastes as a starting point. We envisage that in situ leaching could sidestep many of the problems that prevent realisation of the resource potential of waste repositories, with important impacts not only in the UK but internationally. Furthermore, our aim is to not only investigate means to recover resource through in situ leaching but to also investigate how we can appropriately benchmark such processes (which we anticipate may have substantially lower environmental and human health impacts) in terms of life-cycle, human health and ecosystems service costs as well as public opinion for comparison to retrieval of landfilled resources by 'conventional' dig-and-process landfill mining and against conventional mining of the same resources. This aims to provide evidence to demonstrate not only that the techniques are technically feasible but that they offer reduced impact compared to conventional technologies, are acceptable to stakeholders and thus are a feasible and appropriate approach to future management of wastes.

Planned Impact

We feel strongly that this research has real potential to actually kick-start a truly new discipline - in situ recovery of resources from waste repositories. The project is likely to have numerous social, economic and environmental impacts affecting a range of players in the waste recovery sector, as well as on residential communities and wider society in the future. Based on the model of impact defined by the RCUK, our work will contribute to both academic, and economic and societal impact. As a measure of our Academic Impact, we anticipate developing a new branch of technology - in situ recovery of resource from waste repositories and delivering and training highly skilled researchers. As a measure of our economic and societal impact, we will i) contribute towards evidence-based policy-making and influencing public policies and legislation at a local and regional level through our project partners and ii) contribute towards resource recovery, environmental sustainability, protection and impact reduction. The project's immediate impacts will be felt mainly through the generation and dissemination of new knowledge on the potential to recover resources from a range of wastes in situ. In the medium and longer term the project could have significant and wide-reaching benefits for a number of stakeholders, and these are also being considered in the lifetime of the project. The potential beneficiaries, and the ways in which they will gain from the research, are as follows:

- Industry: which will gain, in the short term, from new knowledge on the contents of waste and a clearer picture of the UK's potential for in situ recovery from the typology of sites. Ultimately, it could gain economic advantage from turning waste into an asset by transforming them into viable ore deposits.

- Repository owners: who could gain economically from: new funding streams generated by recovered resources; more rapid reclamation (i.e. turnover) of sites; and reducing future liabilities (i.e. potential costs) (in the medium-long term) thereby allowing improved management of repositories all of which, as noted by a project partner, has the potential for 'substantial benefit both in terms of the long-term site stewardship and reduction in fugitive emissions'.

- Engineers and other professionals engaged with waste repositories: who will gain marketable knowledge, and advanced tools (e.g. the Resource Recovery model), to deal with waste (in the short-medium term).

- Regulators and policy makers: who will be able to develop more effective policies and regulations, by being equipped with better understandings (and evidence) of impacts of interventions in waste deposits, and new techniques to identify effective and socially acceptable recovery (in the short-medium term).

- Residents and communities (in proximity to sites and transportation routes), who, in the longer term, will avoid disruption because in situ techniques have less impact than ex situ extraction and other forms of repository mining, and who will benefit from the removal of hazardous components of waste deposits (in the medium-long term).

- Broader society: which will have more secure access to resources, reduced environmental and landscape impacts (because of reduced mining of virgin ores), more waste 'reuse' (rather than disposal), and hence enhanced recycling with the reduced need for geological disposal (in the medium-long term).


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Description The University of the West of England's research in the INSPIRE project has focused on three key areas.

First, we have undertaken a quantitative analysis of the ecological and cultural protections afforded to sites of previous mineral extraction. Such sites are often perceived as degraded and of little value. However, our spatial analysis of the association between environmental and cultural designations in England and Wales found that:

• Around 69,000 mines (44%) are co-located with some form of designation; ranging from 27% of sand and gravel quarries in Wales to 84% of metal mines in England.
• Metal mines in particular are often protected for their contribution to biodiversity, geodiversity and industrial heritage.
• Some designations are coincidental to mining and may benefit from resource recovery combined with remediation activities, others exist due to previous mining activities and may be adversely affected.
• Many sites have now been restored and are providing a range of services including food and timber production, spaces and landscapes for recreation, education, nature and heritage, and these need to be balanced against the risk posed by such sites to human health and environmental quality.
• This creates a tension in the long-term management of former mineral extraction, which should be considered when assessing the potential for, and desirability of, resource recovery.

Second, along with European colleagues we examined national mine waste registries from 7 European countries, created to fulfil the requirements of the 'Mine Waste Directive' (2006/21/EC), for their potential use as an initial source of information for the valorisation of specific mine waste deposits for their resource recovery. This found that national mine waste registries could serve only as an initial source of information, and more detailed information must be obtained from other sources. This misses an opportunity to see these sites as a resource, and not only as a potential source of pollution, given the urgent need to find alternative stocks of metals within the EU.

Finally, we examined how those living in former metal mining landscapes value this heritage and their preferences for the long-term management of mine waste. This found that, in general:
• Most residents view their mining heritage positively for the cultural and ecological benefits that it provides, but they are concerned about water quality and lack of vegetation on mine sites
• Residents agree that cleaning up pollution is a priority on the sites and although they view metal recovery from mines wastes and reopening of mines negatively, they may be more accepting of metal recovery combined with sensitive restoration and better water quality
• Residents displayed significant mistrust of the mining industry and expert stakeholders, and want a greater emphasis on the priorities of local people in the future.

However, the views of local people are nuanced; they value their mining heritage but opinion is split on the most effective way to manage these sites especially where there is an impact on water quality. Here, five perspectives on the mining heritage and differing priorities for long-term management are revealed:
• Preservationists felt the mines should be left alone to preserve the cultural heritage
• Nature enthusiasts, environmentalists and landscape lovers placed different emphasis on restoring the sites for nature conservation, to improve water quality or the visual appearance of the mines
• Industry supporters felt that the potential contribution that reworking the mines could make to the local economy should be the priority.

Our research demonstrates that while resource recovery from former metal mine sites may be desirable in terms of securing a supply of metals in the future and reducing the environmental risk from abandoned sites, it is essential that the ecological and cultural value of these sites is considered. Critical to this is ensuring that local communities are involved in the resource recovery process and benefit from increased economic prosperity and a better quality environment.
Exploitation Route The findings may be used by those managing former mineral extraction sites to better understand the complexity of these sites, particularly in terms of their value to local residents and the important role they play in creating a sense of place in mining landscapes.
They may also contribute to a developing narrative around the feasibility of resource recovery from mine wastes and the acceptability of these technologies to local residents and other stakeholders. Our finding that residents were likely to be more accepting of resource recovery if this can be combined with sensitive restoration that works with the heritage features could offer important insights for those wishing to take the technology forward.
Sectors Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Contribution to POST Note: Access to Critical Materials
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Contribution to a national consultation/review
Description ASPIRE - Accelerated Supergene Processes in Repository Engineering
Amount £159,279 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/T031018/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2021 
End 02/2024
Description Environment and health impacts of land recycling and brownfield conversion: lessons learned for future action
Amount € 13,000 (EUR)
Organisation World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe 
Sector Public
Country Denmark
Start 04/2020 
End 11/2020
Description Mobile exhibition in mining museums 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The UK's mining heritage generates significant income through tourism. Many former mining areas have cultural destinations and events that celebrate this aspect of our industrial heritage. We collaborated with a selection of these venues to showcase findings from the RRfW programme. Working across the INSPIRE, B3, MeteoRR and R3AW projects, display materials, including posters and a board game, were developed which enabled direct engagement of stakeholders and the general public.
The team exhibited at King Edwards Mine (Camborne, Cornwall) during the International Mining Games; a prestigious and historic mining event to commemorate the global mining legacy. The displays received a positive response and Copper Kingdom (Parys Mountain), Silver Mountain Experience (Aberystwyth), and Heartlands (Camborne, Cornwall) are now using our displays as part of their permanent exhibits. These activities allowed us to reach several thousand people over a period of a few months, and the permanent displays have created a lasting legacy for RRfW to reach a wider and bigger audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation at final INSPIRE stakeholder event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation examining the feasibility of metal recovery from metal mine wastes in England and Wales. This focussed on the multiple environmental and cultural designations associated with metal mine wastes, for example Sites of Special Scientific Interest and World Heritage Sites, and the value local residents place on their mining heritage and their preferences for the long term management of the sites.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018