The E-Gold Rush

October 14, 2015

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure – Unknown

The great California gold rush began on January 24, 1848, when James W. Marshall discovered a gold nugget in the American River while constructing a sawmill for John Sutter, a Sacramento agriculturalist. The large influx of “’49ers,” as the gold prospectors were known, caused California’s population to increase dramatically. There is a new gold rush. Rather than picks and shovels, this new generation of prospecting is called “urban mining’ and uses shredders; separators and conveyor belts. Urban mining is the process of reclaiming compounds and elements from products, buildings and waste. It lessens environmental impact, rids landfills of reusable materials, lowers energy costs and conserves natural resources.

Take a closer look at a cellphone, computer; tablet; solar panel; HD TVs and any other electronic devices found in homes, schools or offices. These devices contain many precious metals such as gold; silver; platinum; palladium, lithium and mercury. The reality is, the amount of precious metals found in individual electronic devices is minimal. The average electronic device contains just milligrams of valuable precious metals. However, the real value comes when that tiny amount is aggregated from thousands of devices. At a certain point, these precious metals are literally worth their weight in gold.

The “Solving the E-Waste Problem” (StEP) initiative, a partnership between the United Nations and academic and business organizations found that the annual production of electronic goods worldwide required 320 tons of gold and over 7,500 tons of silver, with a combined value of $21 billion dollars. At present, just 15 percent of that is recovered. The use of lithium has also surged in the past decade and the lithium-ion battery market is expected to be worth $43 billion dollars in 2020. As Green Technology Solutions CEO Paul Watson noted recently, the supply of discarded lithium will continue to surge even as the cost of mining it increases. Even with recent declines in precious metal commodity prices due to manufacturing declines, the long term trends – and the potential demand for newer electronic technologies (better solar panels, higher resolution screens, metastasizing demand for mobile devices) – are unlikely to plateau.

Other metals found in electronics include: platinum, and a similar, but less expensive alternative, palladium. Cadmium and mercury, two precious metals perhaps best known for their detrimental effects on natural environments, can also be found in home electronics. Cadmium has been used significantly in lithium ion batteries but is currently being phased out of use due to its toxicity (it’s a known carcinogen). Mercury can be found in almost all home electronics, as well as in a number of home appliances. It’s also extremely hazardous to the environment.

Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the country and perhaps globally. For example, it is estimated that 426,000 cell phone are discarded globally on a daily basis. Why? we are happy to dispose of our electronic consumables when they become tired, either for an upgrade or because it is cheaper to replace them than it is to repair them.Consumer demand for new cell phones is not driven because the older ones are worn out or broken rather the driver is the next generation of cell phone that come out every couple of years. The key is to remember that with this mass proliferation of electronic devices like cell phones also comes the massive buildup of electronic waste. It’s e-waste that can easily end up as a huge burden on the environment if each unit is not discarded properly. One cell phone because of the toxic metals like lead; cadmium and mercury can pollute approximately 30,000 gallons of drinking water.

Urban mining not only has a role in environmental protection and commerce, there are national security implications. Certain electronics contain rare earth elements that include: yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium. Rare earth elements play an essential role in our national defense. The military uses night-vision goggles, precision-guided weapons, communications equipment, GPS equipment, batteries and other defense electronics. These give the United States military an enormous advantage. Rare earth metals are key ingredients for making the very hard alloys used in armored vehicles and projectiles that shatter upon impact. Currently, China is capitalizing on its dominant position and began restricting exports and allowing rare earth oxide prices to rise to historic levels. At its peak, China controlled about 95% of the world’s rare earth production, so recovery from electronic waste through urban mining becomes increasingly critical to the U.S..

The precious metals noted here are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the plethora of precious metals found in consumer electronics. A whole host of others exist, and interesting efforts all over the world are taking place to finally close the loop on this sustainable source in ways that protect, rather than pollute, our precious natural resources and environment.

Federico Magalini, a professor of engineering and project manager for the e-Waste Academy explained, there are four kinds of recyclers: “the fool, the criminal, the millionaire and the saint.” The fool and the criminal recycle for profit but without regard to the environmental cost; the millionaire makes money through doing the right thing; and the saint does the right thing without needing to make a profit. The objective is to move everyone to being in the millionaire or saint camp”.

There is a way for consumers to get in on the benefits of retrieving precious metal from electronics. Buy-back programs offered through a number of retailers help consumers cash-in on the value of precious metal and other recoverables found in electronics through electronics recycling. Best Buy and Staples are currently two leaders in the buy-back movement, but also more and more retail stores are getting engaged.

Urban Mining is an example of how our clients leverage the Green Economy by using sustainable strategies to innovate and build competitive edge to create value where it did not previously exist.

The author Leonard Robinson is a former Gubernatorial appointee serving served under four California Governors and is currently the Senior Sustainability Strategist for Ditthavong & Steiner