The United Kingdom’s Royal Mint, which has been minting coins for the commonwealth for 1,100 years, announced plans to develop a plant in Wales that would allow for the reclamation of hundreds of pounds (in weight, not in currency) of gold and other precious metals from discarded cell phones, laptops, tablets, and other electronic waste items, according to recent reporting from Reuters.
As we’ve dug into before on this blog, many of the 21st century’s most sought after and widely used digital devices and the hardware components thereof – from iPhones and other cell phones to tablets to printed circuit boards to switches and TV screens – contain small amounts of precious metals such as gold, silver, palladium, and platinum. When consumers upgrade or decide they don’t want to continue using them, these devices often get stashed away in drawers or closets or tossed in the trash, only to later end up in landfills and other waste repositories.
When examined on the individual level, perhaps the precious metal contents of these tech items don’t seem all that impressive, but when looked at on a global scale, especially when examining the issue through the lens of waste accrual and impact, the figures are eye-popping.
According to a 2020 report published by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste, which the publishers define as “discarded products with a battery or plug,” was generated across the globe in 2019 alone – a figure that was 21% higher than just five years prior. Out of that nearly 54 million metric tonnes of waste, less than 20% was recycled, leaving an estimated $57 billion (USD) worth of precious metals, including gold, silver, platinum, and copper, plus other "high-value, recoverable materials" on the table (or, perhaps more precisely, in the garbage heap). According to the UNITAR report, this dollar figure is more than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of most countries.
That’s a staggering statistic!
The report goes on to call out how much of this e-waste was generated in or by which countries, continents, or regions. Asia was the leading producer of electronic waste in 2019, according to UNITAR’s findings, being responsible for nearly 25 Mt of discarded digital and technological devices and other such items. The Americas region was the next most significant contributor of e-waste, with just over 13 Mt generated, followed by Europe generating 12 Mt. On the lower end (relatively speaking), Africa generated 2.9 Mt, while Oceania (which is defined by the UN’s geoscheme as the part of the world including Australia and New Zealand, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia), generated 0.7 Mt of e-waste in 2019.
What’s more, according to the same UNITAR report, predictions for global e-waste by 2030 are expected almost to double, reaching an estimated 74 Mt in a mere ten years from the report’s publication in 2020.
The Royal Mint’s announced plan to extract some of the usable materials from electronic items discarded within its country’s borders – namely the precious metals contained within – is an attempt at tackling this growing global problem and a way to preserve “precious commodities” while forging “new skills” in the UK that may be able to “help drive a circular economy,” according to Anne Jessopp, Chief Executive of the Royal Mint.
Proponents of mining for precious metals from the world’s supply of tossed-aside electronic devices see massive financial, economic, and environmental potential in the practice. According to a report published by the World Economic Forum in January of 2019, which brought together “heads of UN agencies with the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development,” there is “huge opportunity” in the world’s e-waste supply, noting that the “material value alone” of the gigantic amount of discarded devices spanning the globe is worth $62.5 billion (USD), which is “three times more than the annual output of the world’s silver mines and more than the GDP of most countries.”
The report further crystalizes the economic opportunity in e-waste by noting that “[t]here is 100 times more gold in a tonne of mobile phones than in a tonne of gold ore," and pointing out that "harvesting the resources from used electronics produces substantially less carbon-dioxide emissions than mining in the earth's crust. Working electronic goods and components are worth more than the materials they contain. Therefore, extending the life of products and re-using components brings an even larger economic benefit" and furthers the world’s efforts in moving toward the development and advancement of a circular economy.
The report’s publishers also pointed out the opportunity to cut down on the massive cost to human health endured from the burning or pulling apart by hand of these items "by the world's poorest" populations, which often happens without any personal protective gear like masks, gloves, or eye coverings, let alone any guiding safety standards for the practice.
So how does Britain’s Royal Mint plan to take on this huge task of harvesting precious metals from old phones and the like?
By teaming up with Canadian start-up Excir, which, according to the company’s website, is “enabling a small-scale refining renaissance through targeted R&D.”
Excir notes that it “has pioneered a powerful proprietary technology that enables the ethical and sustainable extraction of precious metals” from “alternative mining sources including E-waste.”
As stated on the Candian company’s site, it has developed a lixiviant solution – which is defined as “a liquid medium used in hydrometallurgy to selectively extract the desired metal from the ore or mineral” – that allows for the recovery of 99% of the gold found in e-waste “in a matter of seconds.” Reuters quoted the Royal Mint’s Chief Growth Officer, Sean Millard, as stating that Excir’s technology is “able to selectively pull out precious metals with a high degree of purity.”
While Excir explains on its website that its lixiviant “is an extremely mild and eco-friendly solution that can be recycled with negligible environmental impact,” reporting from The Washington Post noted that “some scientists have questioned just how sustainable and environmentally neutral the mining of precious metals from electronic waste is, however, given it often involves the use of acids.”
Regardless, by harnessing the power of chemical-based extraction to pick out precious metals from discarded devices, versus by using more traditional means such as burning or smelting, which involve extremely high temperatures and require specially equipped facilities, the UK has an opportunity to execute more of this “mining” at home.
With Excir’s approach, metals and other reusable materials can be distilled from e-waste devices at room temperature. Because of that, a Royal Mint spokeswoman said that the UK plans to use the Excir extraction method at a Royal Mint site in South Wales instead of having to ship e-waste off to European-based smelters. In light of recent complications to trade and other industrial service pipelines between Britain and Europe, this feature seems particularly attractive to British leaders looking for ways to streamline economic initiatives and lessen the burden of Brexit on their economy.
Regardless of how it may be best to deal with the growing problem of e-waste around the world, it seems that many influential organizations are keeping the issue at the forefront of their strategies. The interconnectivity between technology, precious metals, and environmental and humanitarian issues continues to be a significant issue the world will be forced to grapple with soon, one way or another.