Recycling of minerals from waste deposits could potentially double the recycling flows while offering an opportunity to address the many problematic landfills. However, this type of activity, i.e., landfill mining, brings many advantages, risks and uncertainties and lacks economic feasibility. Therefore, we investigate the capacity of the Swedish authorities to navigate the environmental, resource, and economic conditions of landfill mining and their attitude to support such radical recycling alternatives towards a resource transition.
By analyzing three governmental commissions on landfill mining, we show how the authorities seem unable to embrace the complexity of the concept. When landfill mining is framed as a remediation activity the authorities are positive in support, but when it is framed as a mining activity the authorities are negative. Landfill mining is evaluated based on how conventional practices work, with one and only one purpose: to extract resources or remediation. That traditional mining was a starting point in the evaluation becomes particularly obvious when the resource potential shall be evaluated. The resource potential of landfills is assessed based on metals with a high occurrence in the bedrock. If the potential instead had been based on metals with low incidence in the Swedish bedrock, the potential would have been found in the human built environment.
Secondary resources in landfills seem to lack an institutional affiliation, since the institutional arrangements that are responsible for landfills primarily perceive them as pollution, while the institutions responsible for resources, on the other hand, assume them to be found in the bedrock. Finally, we suggest how the institutional capacity for a resource transition can increase by the introduction of a broader approach when evaluating emerging alternatives and a new institutional order.
The overall aim of the thesis is to examine the institutional conditions for the implementation and emergence of landfill mining. The result shows that current policy makes it difficult for landfill mining operators to find a market outlet for the exhumed material, which means that landfill mining may result in a waste disposal problem. Regulations also restrict accessibility to the material in landfills. Therefore, it has generally been municipal landfill owners that perform landfill mining operations, which directs learning processes towards solving landfill problems rather than resource recovery. Landfill mining is not, however, necessarily to be perceived as a recycling activity. It could also be understood as a remediation or mining activity. This would result in more favorable institutional conditions for landfill mining in terms of better access to the market and the material in the landfill.
The regulatory framework surrounding landfills is based on a perception of landfills as a source of pollution, a problem that should be avoided, capped and closed. Extracting resources from landfills, challenges this perception and therefore results in a mismatch with the regulatory framework. On the other hand, the material in mines is typically regarded in the formal institutions as a positive occurrence. Mining activities are regarded as the backbone of the Swedish economy and therefore receive various forms of political support. This favorable regulatory framework is not available for secondary resource production. Based on the identified institutional conditions, institutional challenges are identified. The core of these challenges is a conflict between the policy goal of increased recycling and a non-toxic environment. Secondary resources are typically punished through strict requirements for marketability, while primary resources are supported through subsidies such as tax exemptions. The authorities lack capacity to manage the emergence of unconventional and complex activities such as landfill mining. The institutional arrangements that are responsible for landfills primarily perceive them as pollution, while the institutions responsible for resources, on the other hand, assume them to be found in the bedrock.
The major contribution of the thesis is to go beyond the potential-oriented studies of landfill mining to instead focus on how institutions relate to landfill mining. In order to move towards a resource transition with dominant use of secondary resources a new institutional order is proposed.