Extracting Metals from E-Waste Costs 13 Times Less Than Mining Ore

Photo: An imported laptop housings pile in Guiyu, China. Credit: Basel Action Network, Flickr Creative Commons

Alyssa Danigelis | Environmental Leader | April 9, 2018

Recovering gold, copper, and other metals from electronic waste isn’t just sustainable, it’s actually 13 times cheaper than extracting metals from mines, researchers report in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing and Macquarie University in Australia looked at data from eight recycling companies in China and calculated the cost for extracting metals from e-waste in a practice called urban mining. They note that a typical cathode-ray tube TV contains almost a pound of copper and more than half a pound of aluminum. It also contains 0.02 ounces of gold.

The recyclers’ expenses, which were offset by government subsidies and revenue from selling the recovered materials and components, included costs for waste collection, labor, energy, material and transportation plus capital costs for equipment and buildings, according to American Chemical Society.

“The researchers conclude that with these offsets, it costs 13 times more to obtain these metals from ore than from urban mining,” the ACS says.

Although the study was limited to copper and gold extracted and processed from e-waste streams made up of recycled TV sets, the researchers say their results indicate a trend and potential to be applied across a broader range of e-waste sources and extracted metals.

“If these results can be extended to other metals and countries, they promise to have positive impact on waste disposal and mining activities globally, as the circular economy comes to displace linear economic pathways,” they wrote in the abstract.

Extracting metals from e-waste has long made financial and environmental sense to companies like Dell. Michael Murphy, vice president of global product compliance engineering and environmental affairs at Dell Technologies, told Environmental Leader that PCs are a complex product type, but value streams come out of them.

“One key is the extraction of precious metals,” he said. “We’ve helped design for recyclability so our partners can get the materials that are of most value easily, and either get them back into our product or into other sectors.”

Earlier this year, Dell collaborated with actress and activist Nikki Reed on a limited edition jewelry collection made in the United States using gold recovered from Dell’s recycling programs. Since 2012, the company says it has turned more than 50 million pounds of post-consumer recycled materials into new products.

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