Thanks to an ever-growing global obsession for new gadgets, electronic waste is the fastest-growing category of trash in the world. But as much as that sounds like a problem, it’s also an opportunity: If we efficiently mine old phones and tablets for material, that’s a new billion-dollar industry.
A ton of old circuit boards can contain as much as 800 times more gold than a ton of ore–and mining dead smartphones, done the right way (i.e., not shipped to makeshift, unregulated dumps) can avoid the environmental and social costs of an actual mine in a place like the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The world throws out between 30 and 50 million tons of e-waste a year, and the amount is growing between 3% and 5% annually. A new study found that in Europe alone, the materials in our biggest categories of e-waste–everything from phones and laptops to solar panels–adds up to over €2 billion in potential revenue now. In five years, because we’ll be throwing out so much more e-waste, the potential value could be €3.67 billion.
Add in Asia, now the world’s biggest consumer of electronics, and North America, which comes in second, and the market gets even larger.
“Our research has found that it’s possible to reduce landfill, improve sustainability, and at the same time improve economic growth,” says S.C. Lenny Koh, a professor at Sheffield University in the UK and coauthor of the paper.
The researchers broke down old electronics and weighed each marketable material inside. An old smartphone, for example, contains gold, platinum, silver, and palladium, along with 14 other critical raw materials. By comparing the contents to average market prices and the total amount of electronics being tossed out, they were able to learn how much money can be made.
Recycled e-waste could eventually replace virgin material from mines, though Koh believes that it would take more top-down policy to make that happen. “If there’s a global directive that collectively drives this agenda–that resource efficiency, recovery, and sustainability has to be embedded into every business and supply chain–then businesses will start to take this seriously,” she says.
More businesses might also start to shift for prosaic reasons–if the price of certain mined materials suddenly shoots up, or if war suddenly disrupts supply, more companies may start to turn to recycled materials instead.
As demand for recycled materials increases, and as more countries start to make manufacturers responsible for dealing with e-waste at the end of life, more designers may also start to change designs with recycling in mind.
“If we can start from the design stage, and make sure it’s designed in a way so that it can be easily dismantled for disassembly and recycling, that reduces the need for energy in recycling downstream,” says Koh. “That will improve the resource efficiency, and make the circular economy business model more viable.”
Ultimately, companies could make more money by doing the right thing. “This doesn’t only help reduce environmental pollution, and our reliance on virgin materials, but also drives sustainable growth,” says Koh.