Recycling Electronics Could Generate $52b Yearly in Precious Metals

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015
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Imagine a world in which billions of dollars of gold, silver, platinum and other precious metals are thrown into a pit like rubbish.

It seems unlikely, but it’s happening now at landfills around the globe. A recent United Nations University report found consumers threw out 41.8 million tonnes of unwanted electronics, or e-waste, in 2014 but recycled only 6.5 million tonnes.

That discarded e-waste included an estimated $US52 billion ($A65.78 billion) of precious and other metals.

Rose Read, recycling manager with MobileMuster (MobileMuster), says recycling components from e-waste is good for the economy and the environment.

“The benefits are massive, and not just in terms of dollar value, but also the environmental benefits of slowing the rate of mining,” Ms Read said.

“The amount of energy it takes to recover product materials from a mobile phone is a tenth of digging them up.”

MobileMuster is a federal government-accredited product stewardship scheme funded voluntarily by a range of mobile phone manufacturers and retailers that collects unwanted mobiles to recycle components.

A similar scheme operates for end-of-life televisions.  Consumer thirst for the latest technology is forcing the need to recycle e-waste, Ms Read said.

“It’s pretty shocking, really. The volume of consumption of electronic products is growing at a very rapid rate,” she said.

Phones are generally renewed every 12 to 24 months, depending on the user, often as contracts are renewed.  Eighty per cent of mobile owners have a second in a drawer and 40 per cent have two or more, Ms Read said.

Television and computer lifespans are also markedly reduced.

“People don’t know what to do with them, so they store them but there comes a point, especially with larger electronics, that they just dump them because they don’t know what to do with them,” she said.

About 50 per cent of unwanted mobile phones and 35 per cent of televisions are recycled in Australia through a network of collection points including council depots and retailers, but other e-waste misses out.

“Europe has led the way in terms of electronic recycling. They are collecting more around 50 to 60 per cent,” she said.

“We are behind, and their legislation covers a broader range of electronic products whereas ours only covers TVs and computers and peripherals.

“Things like DVD players and cameras and other electronics aren’t covered.”

Recycling e-waste entails significant costs, hence the need for industry-funded stewardship schemes, but Ms Read says Australia could build a new, self-sustaining e-waste industry.  Already, a lead smelter in South Australia is considering expanding to recycle circuit boards locally rather than send them overseas, she said.

“There is a whole range of opportunities to create a new industry and employment,” she said.

“A lot of new jobs could come out of this. There is some innovative new technology that we can use.”


By Jamie Duncan
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