E-mining

That a panoply of metals could be recovered from the 50 million or so tonnes of E-waste we generate each year, is not a new concept.

 

However, implementation has been slow and too often waste finds its way to African nations or long-forgotten provinces in China or India, where it is burnt, stripped and smelted in cobbled-together yards and dumps. Such processes are rarely done safely, emitting toxic fumes and heavy metals, deleterious both to workers and the environment.

The prospect for E-mining and recycling from this source of E-waste is huge, and could be a key aspect of our post-carbon economy in the future, if done well. We all know what an energy-hungry and dirty business traditional mining is; heavily reliant on fossil fuels, emitting greenhouse gases and generating a large amount of toxic waste in the process. As concentrations of PGMs and other valuable metals exceed those contained in ore, energy spent on mining is saved while higher recovery rates result in reduced waste. As an example, from 1 mt of gold-containing ore you might recover around 6 grams of gold, while the recovery rate can rise to over 50 times that, from the recycling of E-wastes (300-350g Au). E-mining is also more profitable than traditional mining, if your incentive is dollar signs alone. What will be needed for the coming decades therefore is infrastructure of clean energy generation alongside recycling plants, for a true 'closed-loop' clean recycling process.

As with most environmental progress, what is required is a step-change led by toughening waste processing legislation. The Basel convention (1989) was intended to stop the movement of E-waste from 'developed' to 'developing' countries. This, we know has not stopped such movement and as a result hazardous recovery practices. In 2018, however, China enforced a huge environmental crack-down on various wastes entering the country for processing. This had an immediate effect on upstream and downstream recycling markets. If OEMs such as APPLE could be encouraged by law to produce hardware with recycling rather than obsolescence in mind then the E mining industry would take off in earnest. And in all likelihood recovery would be performed safely and quite possibly using clean-energy sources.

High value metals typically recovered in 'E-mining' from TV-sets, computers/laptops/screens, mobile phone and telephone handsets, WiFi routers etc...are copper, gold, silver, palladium, indium, gallium, tantalum, germanium to name a few. The best ways to encourage consumer recycling is typically in the form of a deposit payment return at central collection points, much as the deposit returned on bottles citizens used to get on their Coke bottles in the 1960s. In Japan, in 2017, in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics - citizens were encouraged to deposit their old mobile handsets with the gold, silver and bronze thus generated used to plate the 920-odd medals. Hopefully these E-waste recycled medals will one day still make it to competitors, once the Olympics are back on!

© 2020 Lipmann Walton & Co. Ltd

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