Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Andrew Burger headshot

Urban Mining: Billions in Precious Metals Discarded in Landfills

By Andrew Burger

True both literally and figuratively, the old maxim, 'One person's trash is another's treasure,' is proving especially apt in a world where humans regularly throw away millions upon millions of consumer electronic (CE) devices. The figures are staggering, both in terms of the sheer quantity of e-waste we're dumping on the planet, as well as the amount and value of the precious, base and industrial metals, as well as plastics, that aren't being recovered and recycled.

Though new international efforts are under way, there remains a glaring lack of capacity when it comes to accurately and reliably quantifying and tracking e-waste both within and across borders. much less recycling it. Certain things are for sure, however: e-waste is one of the fastest growing components of human waste streams; most of it is being dumped, posing significant environmental threats; and more and more of it is being 'exported' to poorer countries, where laborers extract valuable materials in unsafe, harmful conditions.

Accumulating in these growing mountains of e-waste, however, is a treasure trove of precious and other metals, as well as plastics - deposits of precious metals alone that are 40-50 times richer than the ores being mined in the ground, according to experts at the first-ever Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and StEP e-Waste Academy for policymakers and small businesses co-hosted by the United Nations University (UNU) and GeSI in Accra, Ghana last week. The growing e-waste treasure trove

There are literally billions of dollars worth of precious metals contained in the e-waste that's being discarded and left in urban landfills. CE device manufacturers use some 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver every year in churning out iPads, Galaxy Tabs, notebooks, PCs, smartphones and the growing profusion of CE devices being pumped into markets worldwide. That's enough to add more than $21 billion a year - $16 billion in gold and $5 billion in silver - "to the rich fortunes in metals eventually available through 'urban mining' in developed and developing countries alike," according to a UNU-GeIS e-waste conference synopsis.

If there are great sustainable business opportunities out there, recycling e-waste is certainly one of them. Though accounting only for an estimated 0.01% of the total human waste stream globally, e-waste is growing at a rate two to three times faster than any other waste stream component, according to, "E-Waste Recycling and Reuse Services Worldwide," a report from SBI Energy released last December.

Encouragingly, more and more entrepreneurs are discovering the literal 'gold mine' residing in e-waste streams. More and more gold, silver and other precious metals are being recovered as global CE device sales, trade and waste continues on its sharp upward growth trajectory. The world's gold supply increased 15%, from some 3,900 tons in 2001 to 4,500 tons in 2011, while the price rose from less than $300 to more than $1,500 an ounce, the e-waste experts noted. Electronic and electrical devices contain 197 tons, 5.3% of the world's annual gold supply in 2001. That rose to 7.7% in 2011.

e-Waste: threat and opportunity

Nonetheless, there's a lot of value, and health and environmental threats, being left behind in e-waste. The experts estimate that a mere 10%-15% of the gold in e-waste is being recovered. And it turns out that most of what is being recovered and recycled is taking place in poorer, less developed countries in what's grown to be an 'informal' global network of e-waste importing countries.

China and India have become prime destinations for e-waste exports. So are West African countries. A million metric tons of e-waste a year is piling up in West Africa countries, including Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria, according to a 2012 report produced by the UN Secretariat of the Basel Convention. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the UN Secretariat of the Basel Convention signed an agreement on the "Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal."

Making matters worse, informal e-waste recyclers in these countries are not only doing this valuable work for a pittance, they're doing so in unsafe conditions and manners that are also highly inefficient. Some 50% of the gold in e-waste is lost in the "crude dismantling processes in developing countries (compared with 25% in developed countries); just 25% of what remains is recovered using backyard recycling processes (compared with 96% at a modern high-tech recycling facility)," UN-GeSI conference attendees noted.

Moving from waste to resource management

The bottom line, according to these experts, is that there's an urgent need, and huge economic opportunity, to ramp up e-waste recycling in rich and poor countries alike.

“Efforts such as the GeSI and StEP e-Waste Academy help create networks among policy-makers and other relevant stakeholders for sharing information, ideas and best practices to foster real e-waste solutions and enable the transition to a closed loop and green economy,” stated GeSI Chairman Luis Neves.

Neves added that a substantial changes to consumer attitudes and habits is critical to addressing the growing e-waste problem. “More sustainable consumption patterns and material recycling are essential if consumers continue to enjoy high-tech devices that support everything from modern communications to smart transport, intelligent buildings and more.
"Rather than looking at e-waste as a burden, we need to see it as an opportunity,” added Alexis Vandendaelen of Belgium-based Umicore Precious Metals Refining.

Vandendaelen recommended governments and private sector businesspeople broaden their thinking by expanding from notions of waste management to encompass resource management. "A 'best of two worlds' approach is needed for domestically-generated e-waste in developing countries: efficient local pre-processing followed by maximum recovery of materials and proper treatment of residual waste in countries with the best technologies for the job, with proceeds shared fairly and equitably," according to the UNU-GeIS press release.

Gold and silver aren't the only valuable metals being discarded in e-waste streams and garbage dumps. Significant amounts of increasingly rare, valuable, and costly to mine metals such as copper, tin, cobalt and palladium are present as well, as are plastics.

Recycling just half the plastics in e-waste from the European Union alone would save 5 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy, more than 3 million barrels of oil feedstock, and eliminate nearly 2 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.

“One day -- likely sooner than later -- people will look back on such costly inefficiencies and wonder how we could be so short sighted and wasteful of natural resources,” commented Ruediger Kuehr, Executive Secretary of the UN Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative.

“We need to recover rare elements to continue manufacturing IT products, batteries for electric cars, solar panels, flat-screen televisions and other increasingly popular products,” said Dr. Kuehr who is also head of the responsible Operating Unit of UNU based in Bonn, Germany.
Andrew Burger headshot

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

Read more stories by Andrew Burger