Japan has suddenly discovered something it has never had before – rich deposits of valuable mineral resources.
Japan has always suffered from being a nation without natural resources. It has had to import all its oil and raw materials. Now all that has changed. It has discovered mines.
Now these aren’t conventional mines, they’re ‘urban mines’ in other words rubbish dumps, but Japan’s National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) estimates that these urban mines contain three times as much gold, silver and indium than the rest of the world uses, or buys, annually.
For platinum, Japan’s urban mines could contain six times annual global consumption, says NIMS.
One company which extracts precious metals from urban mines, Asahi Pretec, retrieved 15 tonnes of gold last year.
NIMS says that, if the urban mines were properly exploited, Japan would immediately jump into the top five producers of some of these metals along with countries like the Canada, Australia and Brazil.
The genesis of this new-found wealth is Japan’s love of new electronics products. The Japanese are early adopters and among the earliest chuck-away-ers. For instance they dump 20 million mobile phones a year.
Nonetheless only 550 tonnes a year of electronic waste gets re-cycled – about 13 per cent of the total.
Japan has two problems in managing its new-found natural resources: identifying urban mines, and improving the processes for extracting the precious metals.