The growing market for consumer electronics like smartphones and laptops means that more and more people are regularly buying-and throwing away-electronic devices. But these old, used electronics are more than simple trash. They contain gold, silver, palladium, and other metals that can be extracted and recycled, rather than tossed into landfills.
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a rich source of these metals, containing concentrations up to 50 times more abundant than naturally occurring deposits. And given how much metal is used to manufacture these products each year, it only makes sense that we recycle the materials once electronics are done being used. A whopping 320 tons of gold and 7,500 tons of silver go into making electronics on an annual basis, which translates to $21 billion worth of these two metals alone within these devices.
Though recycling these metals is no small task, the carbon footprint of the process is much smaller than that of mining from the ground. It’s a notion that is beginning to gain traction among entrepreneurs and environmentalists alike. However, many of the current processes for recycling e-waste metals pose unique risks to both human health and the environment. In fact, while e-waste makes up only a small amount of what’s found in landfills, it represents up to 70 percent of toxic waste.
We can eliminate some of the harsh environmental effects by processing e-waste in properly equipped facilities, also providing the opportunity to recover the precious metals from within. It’s estimated that the same amount of gold can be extracted from one ton of old electronics as can be acquired from 17 tons of ore. However the recycling process does have its complications, and much of it is done overseas in developing countries that don’t have the appropriate safety precautions in place.
The world produces over 50 million tons of e-waste per year, and yet the lack of suitable recycling methods means that about 80 percent of that waste ends up in landfills. The environmental effects of continuing on as we have been could have a devastating impact on our planet.
Facilities capable of proper e-waste processing start by dismantling electronics. This process is furthered by a combination of smelting, crushing, sorting, and using magnets to liberate precious metals. Acetic acid can also be used, in combination with small amounts of an oxidant and another acid, to dissolve the gold out of old electronics. Some of these processes release toxins and can be significantly hazardous to human health, making it important for e-waste recycling facilities to adopt safety precautions.
One thing is sure-e-waste is a rapidly growing component of human waste, with millions of electronic devices thrown away each year. They say that one person’s trash is another’s treasure, and the e-waste recycling business is just waiting to be further developed to the point where we can truly tap into this rich vein of treasure. Viewing the recycling process as an opportunity for material recovery is a big step towards economic sustainability and the responsible use of the resources at our disposal.
Do you know of any resources for recycling unwanted electronics? Please drop a link in the comments section to help others take part.