Global consumption is growing, and so is the amount of e-waste. Urban mining seeks to tap the billions of dollars worth of minerals sitting in landfills.
As the global electronics useage increases, both in the developed world; but importantly in massive developing markets in Asia, South America, and Africa, the world faces an e-waste nightmare. Mounting consumption, shorter product lifespans, and dwindling resources all highlight the need to for new supply chain and waste management solutions.
Enter urban mining, a new and growing field with companies around the world beginning to mine garbage dumps and landfills for precious resources.
Waste not, want not
More than 50 million tons of consumer electronics are thrown out each year, yet only 15% is recycled, the rest ends up in landfills or scrapyards. The recycling rate is even worse for rare earth elements, which see less than 1% of current production recycled.
While the amount of expensive elements in electronics are minute, the scale of global consumption makes urban mining a potential gold mine. In 2013, 320 tons of gold, and 7500 tons of silver – worth $21 billion – were used in electronics production: 10% of annual gold production, and 30% of silver production go into manufacturing electronics.
The numbers are even higher for other materials such as copper: the amount of copper disposed annually in landfills equals one third of global production. Similarly, increasing amounts of lithium-ion batteries are being thrown away, while both production levels and mining costs continue to increase: the lithium-ion market is projected to be valued at $43 billion by 2020.
Urban mining as a new resource frontier
The rate at which the world consumes electronics is staggering: “everyday, U.S consumers dispose of enough cell phones to cover 50 football stadiums” notes Priv Bradoo, CEO of Blue Oak Resources, an American company pioneering urban mining.
The U.S is not the only culprit, indeed in 2009, 234 million electronic devices were disposed of in Australia alone; or ten devices per citizen. E-waste is accumulating three times faster than municipal waste in Australian landfills, yet even just a few years ago the Australian recycling rate was just 4%.
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