This “urban mining” map reveals the valuables hiding in our e-waste mountains
If you were determined to find a positive in the news that we generated the weight of 4,500 Eiffel Towers in electronic waste in 2016, you might cling to one solitary fact. The report estimated that buried in this e-waste mountain is an estimated $55 billion worth of precious metals.
Yes, the EU, Switzerland and Norway combined may generate over ten million tonnes of e-waste per year, but hidden in that disgusting indictment of our throw-away culture is an opportunity. There’s gold (and copper and aluminium and more) in them thar hills.
That’s good to know, but where and in what quantities? The question that would once have elicited a shrug now has a more definite answer as ProSUM (Prospecting Secondary Raw Materials in the Urban Mine and Mining Wastes) unveils the Urban Mine Platform. It’s a database of valuable materials ripe for scrap mining encompassing e-waste, scrap vehicles and spent batteries.
Tech, cars and batteries
Given a smartphone alone contains approximately 40 critical raw materials, “with a concentration of gold 25 to 30 times that of the richest primary gold ores”, there’s a decent incentive here. And it’s better for the planet too, as the researchers estimate that mining discarded tech for gold would have a carbon footprint 80% smaller than primary mining operations. Not to mention the fact that some researchers estimate we’ll run out of raw materials for our products if we keep going at current rates.
“Three years in the making, this consolidated database is the world’s first ‘one stop shop’ knowledge data platform on CRMs in waste products – easy to access, structured, comprehensive, peer-reviewed, up-to-date, impartial, broad in scope, standardised and harmonised, and verifiable,” said Pascal Leroy, secretary general of the WEEE (waste electronic and electric equipment) Forum in a statement.
The site offers dynamic charts showing the type of products generated as waste; their composition in terms of key components and materials; and waste flows showing amounts collected and estimates for batteries and electronic equipment in unsorted solid waste or of unknown whereabouts.
“Until now, data on such critical raw materials have been produced by a variety of institutions, including government agencies, universities, NGOs, and industry, with the information scattered across various databases in different formats and difficult to compare or aggregate and often representing an outdated snapshot for a certain year only,” explained Jaco Huisman, ProSUM’s scientific coordinator. “The ProSUM effort helps remedy that problem, and enables the identification of so-called “hotspots” – the largest stocks of specific materials.”
As the project is backdated, you can see the changing makeup of our e-waste mountain over time. You can see elements increasing (plastic and aluminium), stablising (gold and copper), declining (printed circuit boards) and those which are now extinct (cathode ray tubes, for example.) Most fascinatingly of all, Minerals4EU, a co-project of ProSUM, has mapped the mining waste data, to illustrate exactly where mining waste mountains are. These deposits are described as “commonly very large, but of low metal grade.”
Elsewhere, the tools highlight vehicles as a rich vein of mining potential, with the continent’s end of life vehicles (ELV) comprising of some 213 million tonnes of steel, 24 million tonnes of aluminium and 7.3 million tonnes of copper. The rise of on-board electronics means they also share many of the critical raw materials of the regular e-waste mountain, presenting another opportunity.
Even batteries offer potential returns. The EU, Switzerland and Norway dead battery stockpile is estimated to rise to 2.7 million tonnes by 2020 – up from around 1.7 million tonnes at the turn of the century. They’re potentially a rich mine of lithium, cobalt and manganese, although the report notes that the whereabouts of just half of Europe’s dead batteries is accounted for.
The recovery process
This is all interesting data to pour over, and a useful resource for governments and businesses to consider, but how likely are they to take action given the costs involved? I asked Leroy. “The economics of recovery and recycling are complex relative to the way the WEEE is collected,” he said, highlighting quantity, quality, the recycling process used and contaminants requiring treatment as unknown variables.
“Given this complexity, the project has made no attempt to identify the cost and economics associated. It is a much bigger piece of work. Like any exploratory mining activity, we’ve identified that the elements are there, or not, other factors determine whether it is ‘winnable’ and it may often be case specific. In general terms, we can say that recovery of materials from e-waste is subject to huge capital investments.”
And would this lend itself more to a government-led mining initiative, or something entrepreneurs in the private sector could lead? “There is already a recycling industry in place. There are also many actors in the value chain taking advantage of the value of some materials and components,” Leroy responded.
“The EU could regulate this place by making European standards (EN 50625 series in particular) legally binding, so that whoever collects or recycles e-waste is subject to the same set of requirements,” he continued. “A significant amount of WEEE is recycled outside of the extended producer responsibility system and therefore not reported as collected and recycled as WEEE – e.g: as scrap.
“In my opinion, Government could intervene by enforcing the regulations – i.e: by ensuring all recycling is substantiated and reported, and that no WEEE is going to sub-standard treatment or is illegally shipped to poor countries in Africa or Asia.”
This neatly encapsulates the difficulties of getting a bloc of more than 750 million people to work towards a common good: there are lots of options, but no definites. But given the combined electronic and electrical equipment currently in use across the continent amounts to some 250kg per person, this is a problem that warrants serious thought. With the Urban Mine Platform, all the data is now freely available – if our business and political leaders care to look.