Globally, electronic waste — including discarded TVs, mobile phones, and computers — is one of the most rapidly growing waste categories. For a number of years, recyclers have collected usable parts, including metals, from this waste stream.
That makes sense from a sustainability viewpoint, but it’s been vague whether it’s practical from an economic perspective. Currently, researchers report in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology that recovering gold, copper, and other metals from e-waste is cheaper than procuring these metals from mines.
According to projections from the United Nations’ Global E-waste Monitor report around 50 million tons of e-waste will be cast-off globally in 2018. This type of waste contains an astonishing quantity of metal. For instance, a standard cathode-ray tube TV comprises nearly a pound of copper and over half a pound of aluminum, though it only holds about 0.02 ounces of gold.
Xianlai Zeng, John A. Mathews and Jinhui Li acquired data from eight recycling companies in China to total up the cost of extracting such metals from e-waste, a practice referred to as “urban mining.” Expenses included the costs of waste collection, energy, labor, material, and transportation, as well as capital costs for the recyclers’ buildings and equipment. These expenses are compensated by government subsidies and by revenue from selling recovered components and materials.
The researchers conclude that with these compensations, it costs 13 times more to procure these metals from ore than from urban mining. The team also draws inferences for the economic projections of urban mining as an alternative to virgin mining of ores, based on the “circular economy,” or recirculation of resources.
The researchers received funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the National Social Science Fund of China.