Urban Mining Could Unlock Tens of Billions Every Year

March 22, 2018

When recycled carefully, discarded electronics can provide a rich and lucrative seam of precious metals and other raw materials

(Article written by Conor Pope on behalf of The Irish Times)


Electronic waste is a global blight, but handled properly it is one of the planet’s most lucrative opportunities to save itself.

When dumped or destroyed or otherwise mistreated, the million of tonnes of electronics discarded across the globe every year pose a real and potentially devastating threat to human health and to the well-being of the planet.

But when recycled carefully, discarded electronics can provide an incredibly rich seam of precious metals and other raw materials that would be either impossible or very difficult to extract from the earth.

Such work has already coined a new phrase, “urban mining”. And in money terms, urban mining could be hugely profitable, and already is for those who have taken the lead.

In 2016, almost €20 billion worth of gold, €15 billion worth of plastics, €10 billion worth of copper, €3.5 billion worth of iron and aluminium, and just under €1 billion worth of silver could have been recovered.

However, the United Nations warns that just 20 per cent of e-waste is properly recycled. Tens of billions of euro are being thrown away every year.

More troubling, however, the failure to deal properly with the huge volume of potentially hazardous e-waste is releasing toxic chemicals into an already challenged environment.

There is a little comfort to be drawn from the fact that Irish consumers are among the best performers when it comes to recycling electronics. Even still, there is more to do.

In 2016, we recycled 34,482 tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment – 10kg of e-waste per person, up 12 per cent on the year before, according to Waste, Electrical and Electronic Equipment Ireland.

Better known as WEEE Ireland, it is a not-for-profit organisation, founded by producers of electrical and electronic appliances to help them comply with the legal obligations imposed by EU directives.

By next year, WEEE wants 65 per cent of all e-waste in Ireland to be recycled. Such a number is very high by global standards, but it still means that 35 per cent of the end-of-life electronics used by Irish people are dumped.

Eleven per cent of Irish people admit they put small electronic waste out with their general waste, while 80 per cent admit to hoarding waste and obsolete IT gadgets at home.

This is both environmentally and economically unsound.

While recycling paper, plastic, glass and wood is not easy, the challenges presented by the vast mountains of electronics and batteries that we produce can make it seem like a walk in a park.

But if stripping electronics is trickier than mulching cardboard and if transporting a fridge to a recycling spot might be more challenging than bringing a few bottles to a bottle bank, the recycling of electronics offers incomparable rewards – both environmental and economic.

It is, arguably, the most important of all the recycling categories because of the poisonous nature of some of the products, the array of materials used and the incredibly high value of some of those materials that could be lost forever unless it is properly disposed of.

Free to the consumer

It also happens to be completely free to the consumer.

Legislative changes in 2014 mean smaller electronic items can be brought to larger electronic retailers, who have to take them for disposal at no cost to the consumer.

Leo Donovan, chief executive of WEEE Ireland, describes the organisation as being “at the coalface” of efforts to diminish the catastrophic impact of climate change.

While he says getting the message to consumers about the benefits of electronics recycling and the ease with which it can be done “is a slow burn”, he says once people are presented with the compelling case for taking electronics to be properly disposed of, it quickly becomes a no-brainer.

“When we talk about electronics, we are talking about absolutely everything with a battery or with a plug,” he says. “You can bring it to a recycling centre or you can go to a store and it is free.

“The agreement that electronic stores would open their doors is one of the key messages that we’d like to get out there and we’re not just talking about the big items like fridges or tumble dryers or washing machines but smaller items, things like hairdryers,” he adds.

He says Status Red weather warnings – such as those which accompanied Storms Ophelia and Emma – point to the enduring and undeniable impact climate change is having on the planet which, he says, emphasises the need for better and more coherent recycling at all levels.

He also highlights an increased focus on the amount of plastics in our water. “People are becoming more conscious of the environmental impact and we in the electronics waste recycling area are at the coalface.”

He says consumers need to take “a proactive approach to protecting the environment” and points to “massive savings” that can accrue.

“It requires seven times more energy to recover a ton of copper from the ground then it does to recover it from recycling in urban mining. And there are a lot of precious metals – particularly in computers and high-tech electronics. Bear in mind there’s only a limited amount of these materials on the earth. which is just one of the very good reasons we should be focusing on recycling electronic items.”

The six categories of electronics recycling

The electronics-recycling arena can be compartmentalised into six broad categories.

First there are large domestic appliances, including washing machines, cookers and dishwashers. They are stripped of cables and other electrical components as well as plastics, iron compounds and other metals.

The second category is cooling appliances such as fridges and freezers. Many older appliances also have ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons, which are extremely damaging to the environment. They are now banned and have to be captured and treated in special recovery plants before the valuable metals and plastics can be salvaged and resold.

Display equipment is the third area of electronics recycling and includes cathode ray tubes – found in old-school TV sets and computer monitors – as well as flat-screen TVs and computer monitors and plasma and liquid crystal displays (LCD).

Older televisions contain hazardous phosphor powder, leaded glass, copper and other rare metals which can be re-used once processed correctly.

The small domestic appliances category is the arguably the most complicated stream, with so many materials to be recovered. It is also the one consumers are most likely to forget – few people would buy a new fridge and just forget about the old one but the same cannot be said for hair-straighteners, hair-driers or toasters.

The fifth distinct e-recycling area is “gas discharge lamps” or fluorescent tubes and low-energy light bulbs. Old-style filament light bulbs and halogen lights are not categorised as WEEE. Lamps are crushed and washed or treated in pressurised containers. Specialised machines are used to remove the hazardous mercury and phosphor. Then, the remaining material is sorted into glass, metals and plastics. Phosphor powder and recovered mercury can be re-used to make new lamps. The crushed glass can be used for furnace linings or, if pure enough, to make new lamps. Aluminium end caps are smelted and other metals are recycled.

And finally there are batteries. Most types of batteries contain toxic heavy metals, including nickel, cadmium and mercury. All of these metals can be recovered and re-used.

Electronics retailers’ obligations

Retailers must register as a producer of Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE).

They must provide free in-store take back for customers buying new electrical equipment.

Retailers with an electrical sales area greater than 400sq m must accept small appliances (less than 25cm) from customers for recycling without the customer having to make a purchase.

Retailers must ensure waste electrical products are stored and transported to an approved collection facility appropriately.

They must inform consumers of electrical equipment of take-back options available to them.

If a product is being delivered you are entitled to have the old item collected at the same time for no extra cost on the same one-for-one, like-for-like basis.

Retailers must give 24 hours’ notice of delivery and the old item must be disconnected from all utilities.

If a retailer has not given 24 hours’ notice of delivery and an old appliance is not ready for collection, they must return to collect it within 15 days.

Recycle e-waste (small and large) through an authorised channel by choosing one of the recycling points on our interactive map. 
Find out more about our Small Things Matter Campaign here »

Filed Under:   Electrical Waste, Small Things Matter