Turning gold into ... gold

Recycling has to leverage on technology, to become more effective. Photo Credit: Andrew McConnell / Panos

In previous posts dealing with eWaste I pointed out the figures on the huge (and growing) volumes involved and how much value is hidden in eWaste. In just one day of "decommissioned" smart phones there are 127kg of gold, 1361kg of silver, 90kg of palladium and 63,500kg of copper. This means some 3 billion $ per year at today's market price.

According to a research led by Lenny Koh at the Advanced Resource Efficiency Centre at the University of Sheffield the recycling of eWaste market value will reach 3.67 billion € in Europe alone.

The issue, of course, is the cost in extracting the gold (and the rest) from the heap of discarded electronic products. Lenny and his team have developed a methodology that starts by subdividing the eWaste into 14 major e-products (including smartphones, LCD, televisions, computer monitors, solar cells...) evaluating for each the potential revenues.

The recycling of gold, according to Lenny, is the single most important factor in terms of value generation. The issue is how to recycle the gold in an efficient and "safe" way. The risk is that the efficiency kills the safety in extraction (using poisonous substances, to accelerate and decrease the recycling cost, that eventually will create environmental issues as bad or even worse than the original waste).

Hence, it is very important that once the potential economic value is recognised we take care that the "extraction" of this value is not creating even bigger problems than the ones we are trying to solve.

The image accompanying this post evoke some very low tech approach to recycling, that is polluting the environment (burning of plastic cases and boards to extract precious materials may create very poisonous substances and the residual of combustion and lost metals, like lead, represent an environmental danger). It is not a given that a technological approach to recycling leads to a better outcome. 

Hence the importance of the work being carried out jointly by EIT Climate, EIT Digital and EIT Raw Materials that brings different perspectives to eWaste recycling to address the various aspects it involves.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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