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Electronics Production | August 26, 2010

Your mobile phone is a treasure chest

You could say it's the best gold mine in the world – because just 41 mobile phones contain as much pure gold as can be obtained from a whole tonne of gold ore. And to get at this treasure, you don't need to dig deep mines, blast holes in mountains or sift through acres of sand.
The recycling effort is certainly well rewarded – many of the materials enclosed in these products are either extremely expensive or only available in limited quantities – or they are both of these things!

E-waste = gold mine
According to a recent survey by the German Ministry of the Environment, in Germany alone some 600'000 tonnes of electronic waste is discarded each year. That is a good 7.5 kilos per head. Contained in this waste are also precious metals like gold, silver and palladium. Mobile telephones and computers are a particularly rich source.

The IT industry already 'consumes' 15% of the world´s annual production of cobalt, 13% of the total volume of palladium extracted, and three percent of all the gold and silver mined each year. The value of the gold, silver, copper, palladium and cobalt built into computers in 2008 reached a considerable sum – at EUR 2.7 billion.

Most of it ends up as waste, but this is very valuable waste: one tonne of printed circuit boards, for example, contains 250 grams of gold. By comparison: One tonne of mineral ore from a very productive gold mine contains no more than five grams of the precious metal.

Recovering this gold, and other raw materials, is an important step towards sustainable use of the resources that only occur on the Earth in limited quantities. It also makes an important contribution towards smoothing out dangerous price fluctuations on the world market.

In the case of particularly rare materials recycling is already indispensable. Annual demand for gallium, for example, which is found in LED lamps, microchips and in thin-film photovoltaics, is forecast to rise again by 2030 to six times the present level. Gallium is relatively rare and only occurs in compounds, which makes extraction complicated and expensive.

Recycling is without doubt a much more efficient alternative. Recovery uses only a fraction of the energy that would otherwise be needed to mine and smelt it. And the method is significantly cheaper. In 2008 135 tonnes of gallium was obtained through recovery, while only 95 tonnes was produced in the conventional way. This is just one example of the growing importance of recycling e-waste.

In parallel with this we are seeing a further dramatic increase in the quantity of e-waste which can be exploited. By 2020 the volume of e-waste in China and South Africa will reach four times that of the levels in 2007, and in India as much as five times.

E-waste recycling is not yet practised everywhere. A large proportion of the metals found in electronic waste is not being redirected back into the production cycle. Each year, according to the UN environmental programme UNEP, over five billion euros worth of metals are simply not recovered.

Germany's Federal Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt) claims that one quarter of the country's e-waste ends up abroad where it is processed without any regard to people's health or environmental safety – another reason why we should be devoting more attention to the subject of e-waste recycling in future.

Mobile phone treasure chest
Each mobile phone contains 60 different raw materials, among them small and tiny quantities of the coveted metals gold, silver, copper, cobalt and palladium. But it's the sheer numbers involved that make this interesting: in 2008, for example, 1.3 billion mobile phones were sold worldwide – and just the gold in them was worth 1.1 billion US dollars.

Raw materials in every mobile phone:
Copper: 9 grams
Cobalt: 3.6 grams
Silver: 250 milligrams
Gold: 24 milligrams
Palladium: 9 milligrams

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