The Mystery of How USD 22 Billion Worth of Gold Ended in the Dump
In the last two articles, we delved into the various emerging as well as tried and tested applications of Platinum and Palladium. Today, we will cover everyone’s favourite precious metal, Gold, and touch on the possibility of a new gold rush that would take the intrepid to landfills and dump sites around the world.
Over USD 22 billion worth of gold in electronic waste (e-waste) – according to The Global E-Waste Monitor 2017 Report – was discarded in 2016. The amount of gold, if recovered was 0.5 kilotons. It would have met 12.5% of its global demand in 2017. At this rate, it seems that more valuable metals can be recycled from electronic waste (e-waste) in a landfill than can be found in an average mine!
This finding also highlighted the huge, untapped potential of e-waste recycling, which may well be highly rewarding.
So, What is E-waste?
The Step Initiative 2014 defines e-waste as
“all items of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and its parts that have been discarded by its owner as waste without the intent of re-use”.
Sometimes known as WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), or as e-scrap, e-waste is often divided into six broad categories:
- Temperature Exchange Equipment e.g. air-conditioners and refrigerators
- Screens e.g. television sets, computer displays
- Lamps e.g. fluorescent and LED lamps
- Large equipment e.g. washing machines, copying equipment
- Small equipment e.g. vacuum cleaners, microwaves
- Small IT and telecommunication equipment e.g. mobile phones, GPS units
The high tech boom and growing affluence over the last two decades have made e-waste the largest and fastest growing manufacturing waste.
Why Recycle E-waste?
First and foremost, it contains a toxic cocktail of hazardous substances like mercury, lead and arsenic that are detrimental to both people and the environment if not disposed of correctly.
However, most e-waste also contains a host of valuable materials that can be recovered and returned into the manufacturing cycle. These include precious metals like gold, palladium, rhodium, silver as well as other materials like iron, copper, aluminum and plastics.
In 2016, the e-waste generated contained raw materials totaling more than USD 65 billion in value – higher than the annual GDP of many developing countries! And that’s only 20% of the waste that was documented to be collected and recycled. The remaining 80% is probably still languishing in some landfill or dump somewhere. Hence, the potential is immense for recyclers to find their pot of gold at the end of their recycling efforts. Literally.
Of the 44.7 million metric tons (Mt) of e-waste generated in 2016, Asia claimed the lion’s share, followed by Europe and the Americas.
Of Asia’s 18.2Mt e-waste, only 2.7Mt or 15% was documented as collected and recycled, leaving a whopping 15.5Mt of opportunities for recyclers to “unearth”.
China and India alone made up almost half of Asia’s e-waste volume.
China topped the charts at 7.2Mt, and this figure is expected to grow by almost 4 times to 27Mt by 2030. For now, India’s 2Mt pales in comparison to China but the volume is expected to grow along with India’s electronics industry – one of the fastest growing industries in the world.
Key Growth Drivers of E-waste
The growth in purchasing power has led to increased EEE consumption in most emerging economies. The most common purchases were mostly for household appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, heating units and flat panel TVs, all of which are indicative of a higher standard of living.
Increased competition amongst EEE manufacturers for market share leads to lower prices, which in turn contributes to higher EEE consumption. For example, the price of budget smart phones in China and India are as low as USD 200, making them accessible to a larger consumer group.
In addition, more consumers are owning multiple devices, e.g. laptops, tablets and/ or even multiple mobile phones. This will eventually lead to more devices being discarded.
Shorter product replacement cycles also spurs e-waste generation. Major smart phone brands have consistently launched new models on an annual basis, encouraging users to ‘upgrade’ before their phone actually breaks.
To varying degrees, the same trend also applies to other devices. Consumers ‘upgrade’ to newer laptops, PCs and other devices, discarding their old devices even though they may still be fully operational.
The volume of e-waste will no doubt continues to grow around the world, and so will the need for recycling as increasing number of less developed countries have ceased to accept the import of e-waste from the first world.
What Should Recyclers Look Out For?
Though promising, the e-waste recycling business is not without risks.
E-waste recyclers will have to keep abreast of legislative changes in order to pre-empt rather than to react.
For example, China’s recent ban on waste imports has forced many recycling firms to look for alternative destinations, eventually leading to higher material recovery costs.
As the e-waste volume grows, governments worldwide are also looking for ways to fine-tune their e-waste management approach.
Like in Singapore, the government is looking to enforce a compulsory e-waste management systemby 2021.
Recyclers who can anticipate these changes will be able to mitigate the risks and “mine” new opportunities within. They may very well be sitting on a gold mine worth more than USD 22 billion in the coming years.
Are you an e-waste collector? How are you planning to make the most out of this growing opportunity? Share with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.