E-Waste: Hidden Treasures, Hidden Threats

The market for electronic devices keeps growing exponentially. Apple just announced the sale of their one billionth iOs device which comprises the iPhone and iPad. The total market for mobile phones broke the one billion units per year marker last year already when, for the first time, there were more active cellphones than people on this planet. These numbers do not even include other electronic products, classic (TVs, computers etc.) or new (digital refrigerators, gaming consoles etc.) which enjoy longer life cycles than phones but add more bulk to our waste streams.

e-waste.JPGA study released by StEP (“Solving the e-waste problem”), an organization funded by the United Nations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others, predicts that the amount of global e-waste will rise by over 30% by 2017, a staggering number presenting new challenges to waste management.  Of course, this “waste” includes significant amounts of gold, silver and palladium as well as copper and smaller amounts of rare earth elements or even battery materials. Consumer electronics in all of its shades and forms extending to appliances, cars and many others, are the second largest application for gold and silver after jewelry.

Almost 50 million metric tons of e-waste were produced last year. If the prediction holds true then this amount will climb to 65 million tons by 2017. Main culprits are the United States (10t) and China (11t). This means every American produces almost 30kg of e-waste annually. While two thirds of this volume are being collected for recycling, much of it is lost in exports or unmonitored recycling streams defying oversight.

As previously reported on Kitco News, mobile phones dominate the market by their sheer numbers and decreasing life cycles. Historically, Apple’s iPhone even contained a lot (50%) more precious metals than other brands. An entire industry is ready to lift these treasures, and technologies are available to separate the materials into precious metals, plastics etc. and recycle them safely.

However, the StEP report concludes that if the issue of uncharted or illegal exports to third world countries cannot be remedied, many of the devices will continue to end up in landfills, where they present severe environmental risks due to toxic components. Recipient nations of bulky U.S. e-waste include Mexico, Venezuela and Paraguay which can be easily accessed by land, but also China as in inexpensive sea freight destination. Smaller devices such as mobile phones and laptop computers have more widespread destinations, often in Asia.

With a majority of consumers desiring a new mobile phone each year, the battle against e-waste will eventually hinge upon the economics of recovery, and on government initiatives to include a provision for a phone’s ultimate fate in the purchasing transaction.

Bodo Albrecht,