Electronics waste can be a gold mine

People around the world are getting rich off waste and garbage.

The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that every year 50 million tons of e-waste are generated globally. In developing countries, it is expected to grow by up to 500 per cent over the next decade.

The UN estimates, however, that only 15-20 per cent of e-waste is recycled. The rest goes directly into landfills and incinerators. But e-waste is more of a problem than old fashioned garbage. As the National Resources Defence Council says, some of the materials in personal electronics, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, are hazardous and can release dangerous toxins into our air and water when burned or deposited in landfills improperly. In the US, it is estimated that 70 per cent of overall toxic waste comes from electronic products. And throwing away metal components, like the copper, gold, silver and palladium in mobile phones and other electronics, leads to needless mining for new metals that could otherwise be extracted from the discarded device.

Here in Australia, the University of Technology, Sydney is leading a Wealth from Waste collaboration involving the CSIRO and several other universities. It has identified that more than $2 billion is lost to the Australian economy every year from failure to recycle waste metals.

UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures researcher Dr Damien Giurco says: “We’ve found that recovering the five million tonnes of metals such as iron, aluminum and copper locked up in landfills or discarded products could provide up to 70 per cent of Australia’s metal consumption each year.”

Indeed, there’s money to be made turning trash into cash.

For example, a UN report on electronic waste highlights the significance of gold extraction. According to the report, one metric ton of mobile phone handsets could yield 340 grams of gold.

That’s enough to bring in a sizeable profit for anyone with the proper resources for handling large-scale recycling and extracting precious metals from mobile phones.

The Urban Mining site says that circuit boards from tablets can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and other precious metals that can be mined from earthen ores.

“Considering the growth rate of the tablet market, the possibilities for precious metal recovery could be extremely lucrative, bringing in millions of dollars every year when the proper certified recycling methods are utilised.”

Metal deposits in e-waste are up to 40 to 50 times richer than ore extracted from mines. For example, one ton of gold ore yields about five grams of gold, but one ton of phone circuitry yields about 150 grams, 30 times as much.

As Mining Australia points out, implementing proper recycling techniques to recover the metals means it can then be sold for huge profits. They reckon 320 tonnes of gold can yield $16 billion while 7500 tonnes of silver can mean $5 billion in profit.

Now that turns cities into the mines of tomorrow.

As Our World puts it:

“Most rare earths, and resources in general, end up largely in cities, which by definition are concentrations of people, capital and knowledge, but not extraction and manufacturing.

“Viewed in a different light, however, today’s cities are the ultimate mine; located above ground and rich in stocks of precious metals and minerals. While veins of copper literally run through the fabric of urban life there are also nuggets of gold and platinum sitting on the desks and shelves of offices and in waste dumps.

“The alignment of this economic imperative to the, often ignored, environmental imperative of how we use and dispose of the items we consume has underlined the importance of what has been termed ‘urban mining’ — defined as ‘the process of reclaiming compounds and elements from products, buildings and waste’.

“The urban mine concept aims to redefine the city from that of a consumption centre to a production centre. It can be seen as analogous to urban agriculture, which not only provides food produced within the city, but also helps residents understand where food comes from and reconnects communities with nature.

“Cities could be excavated for such things as the vast amount of copper stock in electrical wiring and all kinds of materials in disused buildings.”

So how do we mine cities to generate resources that citizens need to stay safe, healthy, and prosperous? Fortunately, businesses are now springing up to take advantage of the vast sums that can be made from urban mining.

Fortune magazine reports that California based company Blue Oak Resources is building a refinery dedicated to recovering valuable metals such as gold, silver, copper and palladium from the growing mountains of e-waste currently threatening to overwhelm the planet. And there’s a lot of it.

“Every day, US consumers dispose of enough cell phones to cover 50 football fields,” said BlueOak’s chief executive Privahini Bradoo.

French waste and water company Veolia Environnement SA is sweeping the streets of London and extracting rare metals like platinum blown out of vehicle exhaust filters and settled as grime on the street. The company also says palladium and rhodium used in the catalytic converters attached to exhausts is another “gold mine”. It reckons that 1.5 tons of platinum, 1.3 tons of palladium and 800 kilograms of rhodium could be recovered each year from UK streets – fetching over $100 million dollars.

Australian company Mobile Muster claims to have recycled more than 1014 tonnes of mobile phone components, recovering over 96 per cent of the materials. It says this has reduced the need to mine 25,278 tonnes of precious metal ore – the equivalent to keeping 2300 cars off the road, planting 49,400 trees or preventing 8130 tonnes of carbon emissions.

Buildings are another valuable source for urban mining. Professor Thomas Graedel from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science says:

“Today’s buildings and their contents… present large ‘urban mines’ of around 400 million tonnes of aluminium metal that can be extracted and recycled by future generations through the use of only five per cent of the originally used energy, not just once but repeatedly.

“The aluminium is embodied in such items as exterior surfaces, counters, appliances, and electronics. In highly developed countries, aluminium in buildings of all types amounts to between 120 and 200 kg per person. Globally, it is estimated that buildings and their contents contain some 400 million tonnes of aluminium, which can be extracted and reused by future generations time after time.”

Urban mining is the future for sustainable business. And cities, with their large-scale infrastructure and population density, offer an opportunity for the future of mining.