Research by the University of Technology in Sydney in collaboration the CSIRO and other universities found that up to 70 per cent of Australia’s metal consumption could be provided by recovering the five million tonnes of metals in landfills or discarded products. What this points to is an above ground revolution that’s making some innovative companies very rich.

Where’s the money in waste? Most people don’t realise their electronics – mobile phones, computers, tablets, TVs and similar gadgets – are made from numerous metals, including gold, silver, palladium, iron, aluminium, copper and rare earth metals. Of course, the quantities in each device are miniscule. But think of it. Demand is growing for new technology so the numbers of obsolete hardware lying idle at home or ending up in landfill are increasing. Enter the urban mining companies.

One of the companies is Brussels-based Umicore. Once a high-polluting, unprofitable metal smelting business, it today provides specialist materials for automotive catalysts, lithium-ion batteries and photovoltaic technologies. It’s also established itself as a leader in “urban mining”, recycling old phones, laptops and the like. According to The Guardian, the company now spends around €180m (A$262.5 million) in R&D, around 6-7 per cent of annual revenues.

Another is California-based start-up BlueOak Resources which according to Fortune magazine, is building a new facility in Arkansas, what it calls the nation’s first “urban mining” 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.

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

Bradoo says between seven and 10 per cent of the world’s gold and 30 per cent of the silver produced goes into electronics but only 15 per cent of the 50 million tons of e-waste created globally each year undergoes any recycling. Instead, the vast majority of devices are dumped in landfills or exported to countries where e-waste is hand-picked over open fires. And therein lies the business opportunity.

Then there is New Jersey-based Covanta. The company is doing brilliantly from waste. Muck is a motser. It’s just raised its quarterly dividend by 39 per cent to provide an annual yield of 4.8 per cent and has provided a 2014 operating profit guidance of between US$470-500 million.

Covanta specialises in zero landfill, ewaste, used oil filter processing and recycling, end-of-life product recovery solutions, organics recycling, recycling management, assured destruction, retail waste, energy-from-waste systems, non-hazardous manufacturing and industrial waste, commercial waste and liquid waste. The company has just executed an agreement with the Dublin City Council to build, own and operate a new 600,000 metric tonne a year, 58 megawatt energy-from-waste facility in Ireland. Covanta claims that  when complete, the facility will generate clean renewable energy to supply 80,000 homes, reducing Ireland’s reliance on imported fossil fuel. It says the facility has also been designed with technology and infrastructure to provide enough heat to meet the equivalent needs of over 50,000 homes if a district heating system is implemented in the future.

Another is America’s largest zinc producer Horsehead, which, according to Barrons, doesn’t actually mine zinc. It produces the mineral by recycling electric-arc furnace dust, a waste product of steel making. Horsehead makes money two ways: it charges steel producers to have their waste carted off for reprocessing, and it sells the finished zinc. Horsehead traces its roots in the zinc business back to the mid-1800s. Once known as the New Jersey Zinc Company, weak zinc prices in the early 2000s forced it into bankruptcy protection. Private-equity firm Sun Capital Partners bought up its assets in 2003, and changed the company’s name. Horsehead recycles about 70 per cent of North American EAF dust, and controls 70 per cent of the market for Prime Western-grade zinc, used mostly as a rust-preventing coating for steel products such as chain-link fences, pipes and guardrails. Its size has allowed it to secure 10-year contracts with steel mills for EAF dust, and has given it priority with customers. Analysts expect Horsehead to earn $15 million this year, on revenue of $473 million.

The e-waste capital of the world is in Guiyu in China. It’s the world’s waste basket. It’s a region that’s home to 5500 businesses devoted to processing discarded electronics. According to local websites, the region dismantles 680 tonnes of junked computers, mobile phones, and other devices a year. According to Ivan Watson at CNN, it’s quite a scene and there are health risks:

On seemingly every street, labourers sit on the pavement outside workshops ripping out the guts of household appliances with hammers and drills. The roads in Guiyu are lined with bundles of plastic, wires, cables and other garbage. Different components are separated based on their value and potential for re-sale. On one street sits a pile of green and gold circuit boards. On another, the metal cases of desktop computers.

At times, it looks like workers are reaping some giant plastic harvest, especially when women stand on roadsides raking ankle-deep “fields” of plastic chips.

In one workshop, men sliced open sacks of these plastic chips, which they then poured into large vats of fluid. They then used shovels and their bare hands to stir this synthetic stew.

“We sell this plastic to Foxconn,” one of the workers said, referring to a Taiwanese company that manufactures products for many global electronics companies, including Apple, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

But it’s also dirty and dangerous work. According to Greenpeace, studies have found that the kids there have unsafe levels of lead in their blood and a separate report by the Shantou Medical University Hospital in November 2003 found a high incidence of skin damage, headaches, vertigo, nausea, chronic gastritis, and gastric and duodenal ulcers, especially among migrants who recycle circuit boards and plastic. Another study revealed e-waste labourers in China had very high concentrations of toxic flame retardants in their bodies. One worker had by far the highest concentration ever reported.

Life in the world’s waste basket is pretty cheap.

But then, this could change business forever. Recent research from the Wealth from Waste collaboration led by the University of Technology, Sydney and involving the CSIRO and other universities, found that up to 70 per cent of Australia’s metal consumption could be provided via recovering the five million tonnes of metals such as iron, aluminum and copper locked up in landfills or discarded products.

So what’s holding us back? Anna Littleboy from the CSIRO says the big challenge lies in the ability to persuade people and industry to see waste products as a resource rather than a liability.

“We need to create more responsive manufacturing, processing innovation and new business models around recycling,’’ Littleboy writes in The Conversation. “This will challenge the way we currently operate as a nation and ask us to rethink how we relate to consumer markets around the world. We can’t keep relying solely on our raw mineral resources.  This scarcity is driving a move towards a circular economy – one in which the value created by inputs (materials, energy and labour) is extended by enabling a material life that goes beyond product life. So we go from mineral to metal, to product, back to metal and so on. By understanding such economies and value of how this chain operates in Australia, we can begin to understand, at scale, the barriers and opportunities to more sustainable consumption and production in a resource limited future.”

And that’s the key here: a truly sustainable economy has to be circular.