Worldwide, the annual manufacture of high-tech products (PCs, cell phones, tablet computers and other electronic and electrical devices) uses some $21 billion worth of gold and silver (320 tons and 7,500 tons, respectively).
When these products reach the end of their usable life and become electronic waste (e-waste), however, less than 15% of these precious metal “deposits” are recovered for reuse. The rest is discarded, creating potential health and environmental hazards.
This was the message delivered by experts to participants at the recent GeSI and StEP E-Waste Academy. This training opportunity for policymakers and small businesses (held 25—29 June 2012 at UNU-INRA in Accra, Ghana) was co-organized by the United Nations University and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI).
The use of precious metals for high-tech products is rising. For example, the production of electronic and electrical products consumed 5.3% (197 tons) of the world’s gold supply in 2001, and 7.7% (320 tons) in 2011. Over that same decade, the price per ounce of gold soared by five times, from under $300 to more than $1,500.
Yet, globally, less than 15% of the gold in e-waste is recovered for reuse.
Beyond the lost opportunity to recover valuable resources (not only gold and silver, but copper, tin, cobalt, palladium and other precious metals) from discarded consumer electronics, these devices end up in landfills or are exported to developing countries for disposal, where they create potential health and environmental hazards.
The recovery of plastics in e-waste is an issue as well. A ton of plastic created through recycling requires only one-tenth as much water and energy as new plastic, and produces one to three fewer tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Recycling just half of the plastics in e-waste from the European Union alone, for example, could save some 5 million kilowatt-hours of energy and reduce CO2 emissions by 2 million tons.
“We need to recover rare elements to continue manufacturing IT products”, said Dr. Ruediger Kuehr, Executive Secretary of the Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative and head of the UNU StEP coordinating unit based in Bonn, Germany. “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.”