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by Lombard Odier

A world without waste: how gold mining is going green

For decades, industrialised countries have disposed of huge quantities of e-waste by exporting it to developing regions such as West Africa

Recycling precious metals and minerals from used electronics can help make today's consumption patterns more environmentally sustainable.

The ubiquitous mobile phone has been a constant and essential fixture in our daily lives for more than two decades. During the coronavirus pandemic its purpose has been elevated to become a valuable life line for those self-isolating from the rest of the world. But as our reliance on smart phones and other electronic devices increases, so does the number of discarded products that have reached the end of their lives. E-waste which encompasses all products with a battery or a plug, is the fastest growing part of the world’s domestic waste stream according to the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership.

One company attempting to capitalise on e-waste is Umicore, a Belgian materials technology and recycling company that recovers gold, silver, copper, lithium and other metals and minerals from discarded mobile phones.

The company is now one of the biggest players in a new industry that has the potential to transform the way we consume the raw materials used in electronic devices. Urban mining, as this activity is called, aims to recycle some of the estimated $62.5bn in value of electronic waste generated each year - about three times the value of the world's annual silver production.

For decades, industrialised countries have disposed of huge quantities of e-waste by exporting it to developing regions such as West Africa

Computers, mobile phones and other electronic products use a staggering 320 tonnes of gold, and more than 7,500 tonnes of silver every year, according to the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeGI), a collaboration between technology companies and the United Nations University. But beyond the business prospects, the rise of urban mining offers an example of how circular economies can replace linear ones to transform not only the way we consume but also the negative impact our consumption has on the planet.

For decades, industrialised countries have disposed of huge quantities of e-waste by exporting it to developing regions such as West Africa. Agbogbloshie in Ghana used to be an area of wildlife and natural beauty. Today, it is the world's largest dumpsite for used electronic goods from Europe and beyond. Impoverished families work in toxic and hazardous conditions to recycle materials in e-waste manually, which is inefficient and often dangerous.

Computers, mobile phones and other electronic products use a staggering 320 tonnes of gold, and more than 7,500 tonnes of silver every year

Urban mining can help reduce the amount of traditional mining activity in the world, an increasing amount of which is carried out in environmentally sensitive areas.

Urban mining heralds the prospect of recycling much more e-waste in consumer countries, cutting down on traditional transportation, which contributes to global warming. It can also recover greater quantities of metals and other materials from e-waste than the predominantly manual recycling process carried out in Africa, India and other developing regions.

Urban mining can help reduce the amount of traditional mining activity in the world, an increasing amount of which is carried out in environmentally sensitive areas.

Urban mining heralds the prospect of recycling much more e-waste in consumer countries, cutting down on traditional transportation, which contributes to global warming. It can also recover greater quantities of metals and other materials from e-waste than the predominantly manual recycling process carried out in Africa, India and other developing regions.

Most importantly, urban mining can help reduce the amount of traditional mining activity in the world, an increasing amount of which is carried out in environmentally sensitive areas and where mining companies are having to dig ever deeper to extract raw materials. 

E-waste is a surprisingly rich alternative to traditional mining: just one tonne of e-waste contains more gold than 17 tonnes of ore, for example, and is achieving rapid cost reductions through improvement of technologies, collection systems and growing economies of scale. As many as 17 different metals can be extracted from e-waste, including silver, platinum, copper, tin and antimony. There is also plenty of it, with the United Nations University estimating that annual e-waste is set to more than double by 2050.

There are encouraging signs of progress towards a more defined circular economy for electronics. The European Union's revised framework on waste targets a 65 per cent reduction in municipal waste by 2035, building on previous directives aimed at waste electrical and electronic equipment

Computers, mobile phones and other electronic products use a staggering 320 tonnes of gold, and more than 7,500 tonnes of silver every year

At the company level, initiatives are in full swing. Volkswagen is building a battery-recycling plant that will support the carmaker’s goal of recycling 97 per cent of raw materials in end-of-life EV battery packs - up from 53 per cent today. Apple has a goal of making all of its products from recycled materials. The California technology company has even piloted robotic tools to help disassemble its iPhones.

Even so, more needs to be done. Many countries lack any kind of legislation to deal with e-waste. And even with regulations covering the export of e-waste, the EU sees an estimated 1.3m tonnes of e-waste exported illegally every year. Not least, consumers have to become more aware of the need to recycle their e-waste in a responsible way.

A report this year by the World Economic Forum noted that a circular economy for electronics could reduce the costs to consumers 7 per cent by 2030, and 14 per cent by 2040.

With more effort, urban mining could therefore become a win-win - benefiting consumers and producers while simultaneously making sure that our planet does not become a landfill of hazardous waste.

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It didn’t take a pandemic for the world to recognise the vulnerability of global food production. In 2016, when nations pledged their commitment to the Paris Agreement they took stock of the urgent need to end hunger and safeguard food security by redressing climate change. However, the coronavirus outbreak has catapulted the challenges surrounding food resilience into the limelight; countries in every continent are dealing with hampered supply chains and farmers are grappling with a volatile market as well as disruptions to the labour forces they need to support seasonal production. The need for efficient and sustainable farming solutions has never been greater. 

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