Last week, there was near uproar when it emerged that the multi-million pound processing equipment at our local recycling centre had broken down and materials meant for recycling were now, hopefully temporarily, simply being sent to landfill. It was like the bad-old days all over again. All those mixed glass bottles, aluminium cans, steel tins, multicoloured and multifarious plastics, the cardboard, both smooth and corrugated, the apparently now invaluable tonnage of junk mail…simply being dumped and scraped underground.

It reminded me, however, of an idea I had as a naïve chemistry student:
Landfills would become the materials mines of the future regardless of whether we attempted at the time to segregate and separate the intractable glasses and plastics, to extract and strip the metals. At some point that dirty job of muck-raking the organic slurry from the discarded technological debris of the modern age would, if not come back to haunt us, actually provide a rich seam of minerals and resources just waiting to be tapped.

Of course, I am not the only one to have come up with the idea of landfill mining, although as a student one often imagines that one's ideas are entirely new and novel (I recall, aged 15, "inventing" a portable music player with a hard drive instead of magnetic tape; wonder what happened to that idea).

Likewise, landfill mining is perhaps almost as obvious as scraping the roadside gutters and using a range of metal chelating agents to assimilate the exhausted nobel metals from countless catalytic converters that pass by our front doors on their daily commute and during the endless delayed deliveries from e-commerce. Indeed, my wife's tutor at university, Martin Hughes, was pioneering this very concept back in the mid-1980s. However, landfill mining and the nobel cause of collecting dust from our roads are currently not entirely viable in terms of economics. The collecting and sorting equipment and the processing necessary are simply too long-winded and labour intensive to make sense despite the advent of spectroscopic conveyor belts and laser-driven air jets that can nudge specific plastics into different hoppers for further processing.

The BBC's current television programming is offering a fascinating insight into India, a part of the world where landfill mining and the assimilation of all sorts of waste and the extraction of every last ounce of value from it has been elevated to a fine technological art.
Millions of hands, rarely left idle to make devil's work instead take on the hellish task of stripping copper from waste wire, components from computers, of collecting and segregating glass, plastic, rags, cardboard, everything. The image of young children existing on rubbish heaps, living under scrappy bivouacs and hunter-gathering among the detritus may punish our Western sensibilities, but the work ethic it betrays can put to shame even the toughest commuter on a 15-hour shift, plus travelling time.

We have WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), of course, and countless other regulations and diktats that nudge is in the right direction towards some kind of materials sustainability. But, this is only just the starts. The "tabloid" headlines of some sectors of the popular and not so popular science press bring us dark warnings of the end of materials, the dwindling supplies of rare earths and the soaring price of heavy metal. We hear of the illicit stripping of lead from churches, a problem since the reformation one has to assume, the potentially tragic copper wiring from railway signalling equipment and even the artistically tragic melting down of irreplaceable sculptures and memorial plaques for their so-called scrap value.

Perhaps the real tragedy is that in the West we have forgotten our grandparents' hard-learned advice to "waste not, want not". Perhaps the generation that brought up families on post-war rations of hand-me-downs and where there's muck there's brass still have something to teach us about making do.

David Bradley blogs at and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".