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Electronic Devices a Rich Source of Precious Metals for Recyclers

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The new gold rush is closer than you think. It comes in the form of end-of-life electronic devices that are being generated in escalating numbers each and every year.

The Importance of Electronics Recycling and Precious Metal Recovery

Electronics recycling is extremely important in diverting solid waste and supporting zero landfill initiatives. Also highly important, electronics recycling helps prevent eliminate toxic scrap. While it constitutes a minority of solid waste, it represents up to 70 percent of toxic waste.

recycled plastic. E-waste is a particularly rich source of precious metals – with concentrations 40 to 50 times richer than naturally occurring deposits. With 320 tons of gold and greater than 7,500 tons of silver used each year to make new electronic products around the world, this translates into more than $21 billion in precious metals inventoried in these devices - $16 billion worth of gold and $5 billion worth of silver, until hopefully they can be recycled. The carbon footprint of both metals and plastics recovered through recycling is much smaller than for the production of the same materials from virgin sources.

The recovery of these precious metals is of no small issue. While a modern recycling facility can recover as much as 95 percent of gold, in developing countries, 50 percent of gold in e-waste is typically lost in crude dismantling processes.

Overall, current recovery rates of e-waste for processing is quite low. For example,for 2009, the U.S. EPA reported that only eight percent of cell phones were recycled by weight, along with 17 percent of televisions, and 38 percent of computers. When low recycling recovery rates are complicated by poor recovery rates from the recycling processs worldwide, the result is that only 10 to 15 percent of gold in e-waste is recovered. The rest is lost.

This low recycling rate stresses the need for initiatives to help promote recovery of precious resources. This can be accomplished through:

  • Policies and incentives to increase the e-scrap recycling rate, in terms of landfill diversion as well as in encouraging the public to recycle their end of life devices rather than stockpiling them in residences - where as much as 75 percent of end-of-life devices is estimated to be inventoried.
  • Preventing export of e-scrap to countries that will use processes resulting in low recovery rate
  • Promoting investment in best practices to ensure that recovery will be maximized in both developed and developing countries.
  • Recycling of E-Waste

    The recycling process varies among jurisdictions. The recycling of e-scrap involves primary and secondary recycling. In the primary recycling process, electronics devices are dismantled or demanufactured, and the components sorted. Further processing then takes place, often at secondary recycling facilitities. This can involve a variety of processes to crush and sort material through the use of magnets, screens and eddy current. A smelting process is utilized to liberate precious metals from electronics components.

    In the future, the waste stream of today will increasingly be recognized as a material recovery stream, which it must as we strive towards sustainability.

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