Our ever-increasing reliance on electronics for everything from communications to alternative energy has left with a serious e-waste problem. At the same time, the market for gadgets has resulted in a shortage of the precious materials necessary to meet our demands. Some Japanese companies—including electronics giant Panasonic—have come to the brilliant yet obvious realization that an easy way to get these materials is from the growing e-waste stream.
In the Panasonic Eco Technology Centre, located outside Osaka, workers dismantle everything from flat-panel TV screens to refrigerators in an attempt to scrounge up useful parts. Overall, 90% of everything dismantled is reused—including precious materials like copper. At the same time, toxic heavy metals and gases are isolated. Japanese camera company Canon is also a fan of mining the waste stream for precious materials, with 90% of all components in its photocopiers reused in some way.
But what of all the e-waste that ends up in landfills? There is still plenty of room for enterprising treasure-hunters to gather up resources. For some perspective, one metric ton of circuit boards contains between 80 and 1,500 grams of gold. That's 40 to 800 times the concentration of gold available in gold ore mined in the U.S. And North American landfills contain more aluminum than we can produce by mining ores.
For its part, Dell is setting up a pilot plant in India to provide people with a safe way to extract precious materials from e-waste. Expect to see plenty more of these plants in the coming years as precious material prices skyrocket along with demand for electronics.