E-waste is not waste, but treasure

There is 100 times more gold in a tonne of smart phones than in a tonne of gold ore itself! But the precious metal is virtually thrown away due to poor recycling of e-waste

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Friday 25 January 2019
Photo: Getty Images

Is electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) actually waste? It may be difficult to accept this when one considers the fact that it consists of rare metals like gold, silver, cobalt, platinum, rare earth metals like neodymium, and high qualities of aluminum and tin.

In fact, there is 100 times more gold in a tonne of smart phones than in a tonne of gold ore itself! All these precious metals are virtually being thrown away, thanks to poor recycling techniques and capacity of the e-waste, globally.

It’s a double whammy as poor recycling standards mean that 80 per cent of the e-waste lands in landfills globally, leading to loss of these precious metals.

The UN-World Economic Forum report on e-waste titled, ‘A new circular vision for electronics’, said, “It’s uncommon to throw away gold, silver or platinum jewellery, but that is not true about electronic and electrical goods containing the same precious metals; up to 7 per cent of the world’s gold may currently be contained in e-waste.”

It notes that the waste stream has already reached 48.5 million tonnes (MT) in 2018, and the figure is expected to double if nothing changes. Moreover, only 20 per cent of global e-waste is recycled.

Due to poor extraction techniques, the total recovery rate of cobalt from e-waste is only 30 per cent. “The metal is however in great demand for laptop, smart phone and electric car batteries,” the report said, highlighting the fact that not only does the precious metal go wasted, but it also leads to more mining for the same.

“In 2015, the (fresh) extraction of raw materials accounted for 7 per cent of the world’s energy consumption,” it said.

What we lose

“The latest forecasts show that e-waste’s global worth $62.5 billion annually, which is more than the GDP of most countries! It’s also worth three times the output of all the world’s silver mines,” says the report, which was released on January 24, 2019. 

“Recycled metals are also two to 10 times more energy efficient that metals smelted from virgin ore. Furthermore, mining discarded electronics produces 80 per cent less emissions of carbon dioxide per unit of gold compared to mining from the ground,” the report adds.

It’s not that the world does not realise its significance. In fact, the informal sector of e-waste recycling is flourishing only to extract these precious metals.

In India, more than 95 per cent e-waste is recycled by the informal sector, where they burn the plastics to extract these metals. But, the methods they use are very coarse, with low extraction rate and negative impacts on health of those who extract it.

The solution, the report says, lies in creating a circular economy of electronics. It advocates a multi-pronged strategy for the same. First of all, it says, the products need to be designed in such a way that they can be re-used, are durable and safe for recycling.

The producers should also have buy-back or return offers for old equipment, and plans to incentivise the consumer financially. The report also advocates a system of ‘urban mining’ by strengthening the extended producer responsibility provision. 

According to this approach, any electronic/electric e-waste producer is supposed to have designated collection centres in a city where the customers can drop their products. Further, they have to ensure that those dropped products are recycled.

Every producer has to ensure that the product reaches a designated dismantler or recycler. Every producer has a certain target for recycling its products, which is directly proportional to the weight of the total annual production.  

India had notified a policy on similar lines in October 2016, called the E-Waste Management Rules. However, its implementation remains very poor.

The report cites the example of a recycler in China to show the way ahead. It says that, “One recycler in China already produces more cobalt (by recycling) than what the country mines in one year!”

It also says that this can hold tremendous economic value. “A circular model for electronics could reduce the costs for consumers by 7 per cent by 2030 and 14 per cent by 2040,” says the report.

This will further lead to creation of more jobs and safe working conditions for informal sector workers in the e-waste value chain.

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