There’s Gold in Them Thar Circuits

Back in 1849, a man named Dr. M.F. Stephenson, who was the director of the US Mint in Dahlonega, Georgia, had a problem. The Appalachian gold mines that had been supplying the Georgia mint were being abandoned in droves by miners high-tailing it to California upon hearing news of a major gold strike out there. Imploring them to remain in town he famously uttered, “there’s gold in them thar hills.” Few did, but the mint survived for another ten years anyway, to some degree because of gold brought back from California.

Life has a way of happening in cycles, and it seems that once again there is cause to issue a similar cry. Why go running off, to dig deep underground at great environmental cost for gold, when there is plenty of it above ground, waiting to be recovered from the waste stream in the form of electronic circuits and various industrial byproducts?

According to Global e-Sustainability Initiative, “urban mining” deposits, otherwise known as e-waste, contain 40-50 times more gold than mined ore. This year, some 320 tons of gold and 7500 tons of silver will be inserted into cell phones, laptops, tablets and myriad other electronic gadgets at a total value of roughly $21 billion. As these devices become obsolete, and you know they will, sooner than you’d like to think, that will amount to several kings’ ransoms. Yet, at present, less than 15% of all this bounty is recovered. The rest is either dumped into landfills or shipped off into an informal network of mostly poor, e-waste importing countries, many of which are in West Africa.

Because most of the rich veins of gold have already been exhausted, what remains to be mined are very low concentrations, typically less than 10 grams per ton. That means a tremendous amount of earth must be excavated and subjected to a highly toxic cyanide solution. Cyanide exposure can be fatal at concentrations as low as 100 PPM. The toxic residue or tailings poses a great risk of leaching into the soil and groundwater. In 2000, heavy rains breached a tailings dam in Romania, contaminating the water supply for 2.5 million people and killing virtually all of the fish in the area. US mining operations generally take great pains to capture and recycle the cyanide solution.

At the other end of this supply chain, for those who seek to extract these precious metals from e-waste, there are also toxic chemicals involved which pose their own risks to the workers and their surroundings.

But given the potential pay-off, these risks have not discouraged many do-it-yourselfers from getting into the gold recovery business. Indeed there are many websites like this one, hyping the fortunes to be made and selling, at a mere $199, a starter kit to turn anyone into an urban gold miner.

Here is a video of a New York City dude who literally sweeps the dust out of the cracks in the diamond district sidewalks where he claims he finds treasure every day.

I’m not knocking any of this. In a way, it’s like putting a deposit on beverage containers, using the profit motive to keep the streets and waterways clean while reducing the amount of environmentally destructive mining required to meet the ever-growing consumer demand for these minerals.

Of course, the DIY approach, while helpful, fun and profitable will not ultimately be sufficient to capture all that is currently being wasted. This is why global initiatives like Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) in Ghana, and the UN-based Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative are so important, to facilitate the safe and effective recycling of these materials.

Closer to home, both Staples and HP are collaborating on a free, e-waste recycling program. Going forward, we can expect to see more electronics manufacturers taking back their products at end of life through extended producer responsibility programs, especially when they find out there is money to be made in it, making it a win-win for just about everyone involved.

[Image credit: Splorp: Flickr Creative Commons]


RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

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RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact:

2 responses

  1. Great info.  I have done some research on rare earth mining and also urban mining.  It is crazy how much stuff we throw in the trash, only to mine more stuff to replace the stuff we just threw out.  Thanks for the interesting article.

  2. Very interesting article by my favorite environmental issues blogger. Also checked out video and would suggest the dude invest in some knee pads at Home Depot.

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