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Landfills Are The Mines Of The Future

There are greater concentrations of precious metals in our e-waste than there are in the ground. And it’s a lot cheaper and cleaner to get things out of e-waste than starting a giant mining operation. Where would you rather get the materials for your next gadget?

Landfills Are The Mines Of The Future
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The mountain of electronic waste rising around the world is a gold mine–literally. Urban deposits of e-waste (discarded computers, phones and other electronics) contain 40 to 50 times the concentration of precious metals compared to ore mined from the ground at great cost to the environment, human health, and buyers of latest gadgets. We should mine it our e-waste, then, rather than the stuff in the ground.

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That’s the message from the “e-Waste Academy” co-organized by the United Nations University and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI). Despite the 21 billion dollars of gold and silver embedded in modern electronics each year, not to mention copper, tin, cobalt, and palladium and other metals, only a fraction of which is ever recovered. For example, 80 to 85% of gold in e-waste is lost due to crude (and dangerous) dismantling processes in developing countries and ineffective collection systems in developed countries (which are the source of most e-waste).

“Rather than looking at e-waste as a burden, we need to see it as an opportunity,” said Alexis Vandendaelen of Umicore Precious Metals Refining at the meeting.

The global business for recovering precious metals from electronics–expected to hit $34.5 billion by 2018–is nowhere near as efficient as the system to distribute high-tech goods in the first place. Despite record high prices for metals such as gold (now five times the price per once in 2001), the majority of metals in e-waste is still landfilled or lost, rather than recycled.

That may change. GeSI is establishing international best practice for e-waste handling. European Union and the US have both tightened standards to ensure at least a portion of electronics sold in the market make it back to a recycling center (85% in the EU by 2019). Even developing countries such as India, a major destination for international e-waste, now demand old computers and electronics end up at authorized collection sites.

We may look back in wonder at how we let such a precious resource go to waste. One era’s trash is another’s treasure.

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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)

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