Urban mining is the key to sustain the Cities of future

Updated: Jun 20

Delhi was the greenest capital in the world until 2013 and now in 2019, it has been termed as one of the most polluted capital city in the world. So what has gone wrong? Where did we mess up?

According to a report, more than 80 people in New Delhi die because of air pollution.  

I was born in New Delhi and it kills me, literally, seeing my city die! 

7 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in India! 


All the world’s 10 fastest-growing cities are in India! The economist in me says it’s a great thing! We would be the powerhouse of the world, but the environmentalist in me is rather sceptical! Would these cities be able to sustain themselves for the next 20-30 years or would they land up also like Delhi which is the pollution capital, or like Chennai and Bengaluru which almost ran out of the water this year?

In this series titled “Cities of Future”, I would like to not go on writing how nothing is going to change but propose ideas and solutions to how we could make our city livable. When I had started writing this series, I started off with the initial idea of what the Future of Cities could look like? I have travelled to more than two hundred and fifty cities across 45 countries in the past ten years to gain insights into what the future of cities look like. I could say with conviction that the future of cities looks rather gloomy. It’s only after coming back to my home city, I realized that in New Delhi is my place of mission, it is a city where I was born and where my grandparents came after the partition in 1947. And now it is up to my generation who had the opportunity to get the best of education thanks to the sacrifices by my parents that I want to contribute back to the city. 


Urban mining is being called sustainability’s latest battleground, and in emerging countries such as India, this can play a huge role in environmental sustainability. In thinking of the solutions, we need to look beyond the obvious. We need to rethink the role of cities. We are oblivious to the fact that cities are aggregators of materials and nutrients. We are also oblivious to the energy and optimism of the people who move into these cities to seek a foothold in the modern world. We need to think of how to use these strengths to re-imagine the cities of the future. 


Professor Dr Thomas E. Graedel from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences says the idea of Urban Mining as it stands today involves careful stock assessment, periodic tables and timelines recapitulating availability. He explains that the energy used for primary production is embodied, to a large extent, in the metal and, consequently in the building, too. Urban spaces accumulate large stocks of materials and resources especially contained in buildings, infrastructure, landfills, and in households. Resource-rich wastes like waste arising from electronics, construction and demolition, and end-of-life vehicles represent a stock of potential resources in metals, plastics, and rare earth that can be reclaimed at the end of the product lifetime.



The Indian building industry consumes almost 34% of the country’s total energy, making it one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. 70 per cent of the building stock that will be there in 2030 is yet to be built in India.  Over 80% of the total energy-related to a building is consumed during its use – mostly for heating, cooling, lighting, and appliances – while manufacturing, transportation of materials, construction, and maintenance account for the rest.


Could you imagine the enormous resources we need to accommodate future citizens? Right now, all of this comes from outside of the city. This is because we are oblivious to the hidden riches in our cities. From buildings to electronic waste, we are surrounded by value. Our buildings alone contain around 400 million tons of aluminium metal that can be extracted and recycled by further generations. Recycling aluminium uses only 5% of the energy needed for primary production. 



India’s consumer electronics market is one of the biggest in the world. A single mobile phone contains a whopping 60 kinds of minerals such as Palladium, Copper, Silver, Gold. With the current demand levels, we will finish all Indium in about 10 years; platinum in 15 years; and silver in 20 years! Virtually 100% of the metals used in these phones can be recovered. More than 95% of India’s e-waste is processed by a widely distributed network of informal workers of waste pickers, who essentially just burn the Electronic products in open flame. It is estimated that roughly 30 times more gold in mobile phones circuitry than in ore as processed in mines on a tonne to tonne basis, the potential within cities surely seems striking.


I am a firm believer in karma and rebirth, why can’t mobile phones be reborn as mobile phones? Why does it have to end up in a landfill with no purpose? The process of urban mining will not emerge on its own, apart from technical innovation which would play an integral role in the road to circularity, the process will also require collaborative efforts across the value chain, involving individuals, the private sector, different levels of government and civil society.


Companies need to design products with circularity in mind and build components that can close loops in production. Individuals have a key role in creating demand. The public sector needs to play its part in making available the necessary infrastructure and formulating policies and regulations that incentivize innovation including public procurement efforts without imposing burdens that dampen growth. India’s leadership is gaga about achieving a mono indicator of a 5 trillion-dollar economy by 2025 which is possible only with a 9% GDP growth rate. India currently is growing at a 5% GDP rate. We need to rethink ways in which we could achieve a sustained growth rate which is inclusive and is not detrimental to the environment (which from my previous blog you already know that we are in an Environmental Crisis and yet everyone is oblivious to it).


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