Old Electronic Devices Provide Precious Metals for Recyclers

Electronic scrap, sorted used computer parts and printers, at a recycling yard, Germany

Jochen Tack / imageBROKER / Getty Images

The electronic devices that surround you on a daily basis are built with many components that contain precious metals of gold, silver, copper, and palladium. From cell phones to modems and computers, old electronics are finding a new lease on life in the electronics recycling marketplace.

The Importance of Electronics Recycling

Electronics recycling is critical in diverting solid waste and supporting zero landfill initiatives. Also highly significant, electronics recycling helps eliminate toxic scrap. While it constitutes a minority of solid waste, it represents up to 70% of toxic waste.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2015, approximately 1.2 million tons—39.8%—of selected consumer electronics—end-of-life and used products—were recycled that year.

Recycling provides a much richer resource than the extraction of virgin material from ore. In fact, the Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) quotes the EPA as saying:

One metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the US.

This e-waste is a particularly rich source of precious metals—with concentrations 40 to 50 times more abundant than naturally occurring in ore deposits. There are over 320 tons of gold and greater than 7,500 tons of silver used each year to make new electronic products around the world.

As a result, there are more than $21 billion in precious metals inventoried in these devices—$16 billion worth of gold and $5 billion worth of silver, until a time when they can be recycled. The carbon footprint of both metals and plastics recovered through recycling is much smaller than for the production of the same materials from virgin sources.

Recovery of Precious Metals

The recovery of these precious metals is no small issue. While a modern recycling facility can recover as much as 95% of gold, in developing countries, the crude dismantling processes employed may recover only 50% of this precious metal. Also, if done incorrectly, the recovery process can expose workers to a wide range of hazardous substances.

Overall, the current recovery rates of e-waste for processing are quite small. For example, for 2009 the U.S. EPA reported that only 8% of cell phones were recycled, along with 17% of televisions, and 38% of computers. Not enough of overall devices find their way to recyclers, and for the ones that do, not enough metals are recovered from those devices, on a global scale. Recycling results in only a 10 to 15% recovery of all the gold stored in e-waste. The rest is lost.

This low recycling rate stresses the need for initiatives to help promote the recovery of precious resources. This can be accomplished through:

  • Policies that promote design for recycling
  • Policies and incentives to increase the e-scrap recycling rate, encouraging the public to recycle their end of life devices rather than stockpiling them in residences - where as much as 75% of end-of-life devices is estimated to be inventoried
  • Preventing export of e-scrap to countries that will use processes resulting in a low recovery rate
  • Promoting investment in best practices to ensure that recovery will be maximized in both developed and developing countries.

Recycling of E-Waste

The recycling process varies among jurisdictions. The processing of e-scrap involves primary and secondary steps. In the primary phase, electronic devices are dismantled or demanufactured, and the components sorted. Further processing then takes place, often at secondary recycling facilities. This can involve a variety of processes to crush and sort material through the use of magnets, screens, and eddy currents. A smelting process is utilized to liberate precious metals from electronics components.

One promising new process promises to more quickly and inexpensively recover gold from old computers and other electronic devices, with less environmental impact. Their process makes use of a solution—acetic acid combined with very small amounts of an oxidant and another acid, which researchers say dissolves gold at the fastest rate ever known. Also of note, Apple reported in April 2016 that it had recovered 2,204 lbs of gold in the previous year, valued at $40 million.

In the future, the waste stream of today will increasingly be recognized as a material recovery opportunity, a necessary outcome as we strive towards ​sustainability.