Good news: It actually makes financial sense to mine our electronic waste

This shouldn’t be new information, but it bears repeating: humans are incredibly wasteful, and nowhere is this more obvious than in our electronic waste (e-waste). The problem of old phones, TV screens and other thrown-out hardware is becoming something that can no longer be swept under the rug – literally, or metaphorically. In 2016, our e-waste total hit 44.7 million metric tonnes (Mt) – or around 4,500 Eiffel Towers. In 2021, it’s forecast to hit 52.2Mt, or 6.8kg per person.

We know there are elements in the e-waste pile that can be salvaged and reused. In fact, we’re sitting on a figurative gold mine – buried in the millions of metric tonnes is an estimated £55 billion worth of precious metals that can be extracted and put to good use. Previous research has even shown us where to find it, but the ultimate question remained unanswered: would it be too costly for companies to begin mining voluntarily? Not as expensive as regular mining, it turns out.

That’s according to researchers from Tsinghua and Macquarie Universities, whose new paper reveals that even without government subsidies, the urban mining of precious metals like copper and gold is financially competitive to mining fresh minerals the old-fashioned way.

One man’s trash

The researchers took data from eight recycling companies in China to examine the cost of extracting these precious metals from discarded TV sets. Despite the cost of waste collection, labour, energy, material, transportation and equipment, the researchers found that urban mining was more cost-effective than virgin mining of copper or gold ore. In fact, according to the researchers’ calculations, traditional mining proved 13 times more expensive, once the Chinese government’s subsidies (around £13 per TV) were taken into account.

But even removing any kind of government intervention, it was still cheaper.

The cost of mining copper (A) and gold (B) “We have demonstrated that urban mining is profitable, even without subsidies,” the paper’s co-author Professor John Matthews tells me via email. “But subsidies make the nascent industry much more attractive – and can be framed as providing an incentive to consumers to hand over their e-waste items as well.” Although the focus of the research was on old CRT TV sets, the paper states that the results “indicate a trend and potential if applied across a broader range of e-waste sources and metals extracted”.

The methods and difficulty may vary, but the principal is ultimately the same whether it’s a TV or an iPhone. To that end, Matthews reckons that the most effective behavioural nudge lawmakers could provide would be at the manufacturing stage. “The best way for governments to encourage urban mining is through indirect means such as requiring electronic items like portable phones to be easily disassembled,” he explained. “In the absence of such requirements companies like Apple are tending to make their products near-impervious to disassembly. “Ultimately we see the disassembly of e-products to be as important as their assembly/manufacturing.

Both processes need to be covered by appropriate standards.”

Good news: It actually makes financial sense to mine our electronic waste

That would certainly make things easier, but if the process is profitable without further government intervention, what’s stopping more companies taking advantage of the gold mine we’re sat on? “The barrier to the projected shift to urban mining is the inertia of existing companies and existing practices,” says Matthews. “The best way to shake up inertia is for fresh companies with new business models to be allowed into the industry, with appropriate financial incentives. “We welcome the potential for creative destruction of existing practices in the mining and metallurgy industries unleashed by the urban mining revolution.” Matthews is optimistic that this change will come. “Ultimately we see urban mining displacing traditional ore-based mining in providing a source of materials needed for production of e-products,” he says.

“The companies that are currently giants of traditional mining will either have to diversify and reframe their business models or go out of business.”

The research has been published today in Environmental Science & Technology.

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