E-Waste A High-Tech Gold Mine
July 6, 2012

E-Waste A High-Tech Gold Mine

Peter Suciu for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

For centuries prospectors have sought out new sources of precious minerals, including diamonds and other gems. But the greatest search throughout history has been for gold. The non-corrosive metal was what drew explorers, adventurers and treasure seekers to travel vast distances in hostile and uncharted lands.

And yet the gold mines of the future won´t be so hard to find, because these will likely be the massive rubbish heaps that are filled with old computers, tablet computers and other high-tech devices that ever increasingly end up there.

According to a new report from the United Nations University the amount of precious metals in used devices is actually quite staggering. Currently 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver are now used annually in the production of electronics including PCs, cellular phones and tablet computers. This reportedly adds more than $21 billion in value each year to what has typically been thrown away.

It is worth noting too that while 320 tons of gold may not seem like that much, in the history of mankind the amount of gold mined would only fill about 3.2 Olympic swimming pools. This is why prospectors throughout history have sought out new sources of the shiny metal — and why speculators have driven the prices to record highs.

Today, more and more of the precious metal is going into high-tech products, even as those gold prices continue to soar.

According to the report, the manufacturing of high-tech products requires more than $16 billion in gold and $5 billion in silver: a total of $21 billion - equal to the gross domestic product (GDP) of El Salvador - locked away annually in e-products. Most of those valuable metals will be squandered, as just 15 percent or less is recovered from e-waste today in developed and developing countries alike.

Experts at the recent Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and StEP e-Waste Academy for policy makers and small business conference further noted that electronic waste now contains precious metal deposits that would have spurred gold rushes. Today the “deposits” are actually 40 to 50 times richer than ores mined from the ground.

The quantity of gold, silver and other metals is only on the rise, noted experts at the event, which was co-organized in Accra, Ghana by the United Nations University and GeSI. The amount of gold used is also very much on the rise, using 5.3 percent (197 tons) of the newly mined world gold supply in 2001 to 7.7 percent (320 tons) last year.

The amount used in 2011 would be equal to about 2.5 percent of the total U.S. gold reserves.

However, it is unlikely that the gold supply would run out, or that consumer electronics makers would ever need to dip into those reserves. In the same decade that saw the increase of use of gold, the world´s annual gold supply actually rose 15 percent — from 3,900 tons in 2001 to 4,500 tons in 2011.

The increase in production also didn´t adversely drive down prices. The price of gold was just $300 an ounce in 2001 but by the end of 2011 jumped to $1,500.

The fact that there are precious metals in the devices, and the high cost of those metals, is helping drive a burgeoning e-waste recycling movement and in turn business opportunities.

This hasn´t always been the case. E-waste for years has been a huge problem; first because many communities in the United States simply do not have programs to adequately dispose of old not-so-high-tech devices. The price of metals was low so the demand for recycling was low.

However, just as scrap metal guys tend to pick up any metal left on the curb these days, so too will someone likely want that used computer — not in hopes of repairing it — but for the metal inside. That´s the good news.

The bad news is that up to half of the gold and other precious metals are lost in the crude dismantling processes conducted in the developing countries where a lot of the used electronics end up. Even worse is that just 10 to 15 percent of gold is recovered and 85 percent is lost.

“Efforts such as the GeSI and StEP e-Waste Academy help create networks among policy-makers and other relevant stakeholders for sharing information, ideas and best practices to foster real e-waste solutions and enable the transition to a closed loop and green economy,” said Luis Neves, Chairman of GeSI.

And the final piece of this is that even when the gold or silver is recovered, other valuable resources such as cooper, tin, cobalt and palladium — as well as rare earth minerals that are being increasingly used in the production of the devices — are simply discarded. In much of the developed world the products are still ending up in landfills.

Those that end up exported to other countries, where there are either little in environment regulation or it is simply ignored, often create potential health and environmental hazards.

While it is unlikely that this practice will change until there is profit to be made recycling used electronics, those items will just end up in landfills — and these could eventually be mined in the not too distant future.