Political obstacles to mineral recycling

We are keen to discuss how to restructure to bring about a sustainable society, but we seldom discuss how we manage resources. Nils Johansson shows in his doctoral thesis, presented at Linköping University, that current policies lead to an increased waste of mineral resources, not the reverse.

Joakim Krook, Björn Wallsten och Nils Johansson forskar kring deponier som gruvorPhoto credit: Peter ModinNils Johansson has just defended his doctoral thesis at the Division of Environmental Technology, Linköping University. He has studied how we can increase the degree of recycling by using the minerals present in the waste in landfill sites throughout Sweden. The levels of valuable minerals are often comparable in bedrock and landfill sites, but in the latter case they are considered to be harmful to the environment. A field of research known as “landfill mining” has arisen, looking into how the minerals in these sites can be recovered.

Advantages and regulations

“Government regulations favour exclusively traditional methods of mining, one reason for which is that the mining industry has long been the backbone of the Swedish economy. Sweden is rich in raw materials. The advantages given to the mining industry, however, are not available for the recycling industry. This means that an increasing number of mines are being opened, while rubbish tips are being closed, one after the other,” says Nils Johansson.

His work shows that while primary production – mining – is receiving support, secondary production – recycling – is being penalised through strict regulations. This is a consequence of the primary mineral deposits being under the control of the Geological Survey of Sweden (SGU) and the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation, which are tasked with supporting industry, while the secondary mineral deposits are under the control of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency and the Ministry of the Environment and Energy, which are tasked with regulating the environment.

“National resources such as minerals should be the responsibility of a single agency. If the use of such resources is to be as efficient as possible, we must have one government agency that manages both primary and secondary resources,” Nils Johansson suggests.


The energy-intensive mining industry also receives tax exemptions, but these cannot be readily transferred to the recycling industry, since it is labour-intensive.

“A further challenge in recovering minerals from landfill sites is that they are less pure than minerals in bedrock. There is a risk that substances harmful to the environment are recovered together with the minerals. It is then necessary to deal with these substances,” says Nils Johansson.

The thesis also points out that some countries in Europe, such as Denmark, do not have any primary production of minerals. In such countries, there is a greater acceptance of recycling. The regulations for the use of waste as a raw material are better adapted in Denmark to the area of application.

Nils Johansson sees one optimistic trend:
“People are becoming increasingly interested in how we manage resources. Many landfill sites give rise to problems, and land is valuable. Thus the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency is also keen to clean up landfill sites, and this may open the way for increased recycling of minerals.”

Landfill Mining: Institutional challenges for the implementation of resource extraction from waste deposits, Nils Johansson, Division for Environmental Technology and Management, Linköping University 2016.

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