Treasure in your trash

Published: Saturday 31 August 2013

Treasure in your trash


  • Every year, mining produces approximately 300 times more waste than electronics do. E-waste contains precious metal “deposits” 40-50 times richer than ores mined from the ground.
  • A cell phone has 5-10 times more gold content than gold ore.
  • A staggering 320 tonnes of gold and over 7,500 tonnes of silver are used annually to make PCs, cell phones and other new electronic and electrical products worldwide, adding metals worth over $21 billion each year to the rich fortunes eventually available through “urban mining” of e-waste.
  • Manufacturing these products requires $16 billion in gold and $5 billion in silver—$21 billion in total—locked away annually in e-products. Most of those metals will be squandered, however. Just 15 per cent or less is recovered from e-waste today.
  • With respect to gold alone, electronic and electrical products consumed 5.3 per cent (197 tonnes) of the world’s supply in 2001 and 7.7 per cent last year (320 tonnes).
  • In that decade, even as the world’s annual gold supply rose 15 per cent—from 3,900 tonnes in 2001 to 4,500 tonnes in 2011—the price per ounce leapt from less than $300 to over $1,500.
  • Developing countries with an active informal recycling sector collect as much as 80-90 per cent of locally generated e-waste.
  • However, some 50 per cent of the gold in e-waste is lost in crude dismantling processes in developing countries (compared to 25 per cent in developed countries); just 25 per cent of what remains is recovered using backyard recycling processes (compared to 95 per cent at a modern high-tech recycling facility).
  • Just 10-15% of the gold in e-waste is recovered in rich and poor countries alike; at least 85 per cent is lost.
  • Recycling just half the plastics in e-waste from the European Union alone would save 5 million kWh of energy, 3 million barrels of oil in feedstock and nearly 2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Source: Global e-Sustainability Initiative and StEP e-Waste Academy

Waste treatment

Researchers at the University of York’s department of chemistry have found a way to turn electronic waste from LCD screens into an anti-microbial substance that destroys infections such as Escherichia coli, some strains of Staphylococcus aureus and other bacteria. The key element behind this is polyvinyl-alcohol, a chemical compound that is used in LCD televisions and is compatible with the human body, Discovery News reported.

Andrew Hunt and his colleagues, the brains behind the study, have found that cooling and then heating PVA, dehydrating it with ethanol, and adding a dash of silver nanoparticles to it can enhance the material’s anti-microbial properties. The final product could be used in hospital cleaning solutions to help reduce infections. According to a York University statement, the product “could also be used in pills and dressings designed to deliver drugs to particular parts of the body”.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.