Back in the days of the California Gold Rush, a common saying was "There's gold in them thar hills!" Today, it seems, there's more gold in mountains of electronic trash than in actual gold ore. The BBC reports:
Around the world there are millions, if not billions, of unused electronic devices in our homes – old mobile phones, neglected games consoles, ancient stereos, outdated computer equipment and defunct printers to name a few. Each of these contains copper, silver and even gold, along with a wide range of valuable rare earth elements.
The key, however, is getting people to get rid of their old devices in a way that means these metals can be extracted, recycled and reused.
. . .
As recycling becomes more “efficient and less expensive and consumers become better informed about correct disposal”, says James Horne, project manager of the WEEE Forum, an EU-funded recycling organisation, so “urban mining becomes a progressively more viable option”.
To get just a taste of what can be achieved, we can look at the medals for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which are now expected to be held in the summer of 2021. Between April 2017 and March 2019, the metal from six million mobile phones and almost 72 million tonnes of waste electronics was extracted from devices donated by people all over Japan to make around 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals.
. . .
Europe is the world’s second highest producer of e-waste, throwing away around 12.3Mt of electronic equipment and batteries a year. Hidden inside is 330,000 tonnes of copper and 31 tonnes of gold. And because older equipment typically contains more of these metals than newer devices, if we were to reclaim all of this, it would be more than enough to manufacture the 14.3Mt of new electronic equipment and batteries that Europeans purchase annually. It is estimated that to produce a year’s worth of new equipment for Europe would require 2.9Mt of plastic, 270,000 tonnes of copper, 3,500 tonnes of cobalt and 26 tonnes of gold.
. . .
It makes the “urban mine” far richer in high value materials per tonne than traditional metal ore mines. And, according to Sintef, the Norwegian research institute, urban mining requires 17 times less energy to retrieve these metals than needed to obtain virgin materials. Research examining discarded television sets in China also showed that large amounts of gold and copper could be obtained at less than the cost of mining the metal from the ground.
There's more at the link.
It occurs to me that we're casually exporting millions upon millions of tons of electronic waste every year to countries like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, etc. We even pay them to take our trash - whereupon they promptly extract all those precious metals and raw materials for their own use, rather than ours. In effect, what we pay them is a bonus on top of their "urban mining" activities.
Is there a local solution? I know that the end product - mountains of fragments of electronic trash - must be disposed of somehow. In the Third World, and in nations with less stringent environmental policies, it's simply dumped. Here, with our environmental concerns, that's a non-starter. Is there a way to extract this value from our electronic trash, without eating up all the profits in the cost of disposing of the residue?