A staggering 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver are used to make computers, cell phones, tablets and other electronic products every year. These figures, according to sustainability experts speaking at an e-waste conference, mean more than $21 billion in value is added each year to the “deposits” available through “urban mining” of e-waste. The e-Waste Academy for policymakers and small businesses was held in Accra, Ghana and organized by the United Nations University and theGlobal e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI).
But although precious metal “deposits” in e-waste are 40 to 50 times richer than ores mined from the ground, just 15 percent or less is recovered from e-waste in developed and developing countries alike. Luis Neves, Chairman of GeSI, explained that crude dismantling techniques and primitive recycling processes were responsible for the poor efficiency.
Alexis Vandendaelen, of Belgium-based Umicore Precious Metals Refining, believes that e-waste should be viewed as an opportunity, rather than a burden. He recommended replacing notions of “waste management” with “resource management,” to enlarge a focus on the mass and volume of used materials to include the quality of certain waste, and to use solutions appropriate to local circumstances combined with internationally available strengths to pursue efficient, environmentally-sound recycling.
In practice, this would mean a “best of two worlds” approach: efficient local pre-processing in developing countries, followed by maximum recovery of materials and proper treatment of residual waste in countries with the more sophisticated recycling technologies.
“One day – likely sooner than later – people will look back on such costly inefficiencies and wonder how we could be so short sighted and wasteful of natural resources,” said Ruediger Kuehr, Executive Secretary of the Solving the E-Waste Problem initiative. “We need to recover rare elements to continue manufacturing IT products, batteries for electric cars, solar panels, flat-screen televisions and other increasingly popular products.”
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