Urban Mining: The 21st Century’s Gold Rush
Photograph: Iwan Gabovitch
You might not know it but there are veins of precious minerals that are richer than any goldmine, running through our cities. In fact, you might even have some in your pocket – but we’re not just talking about gold rings or jewelry, we’re talking about personal electronics. While your cell phone or your MP3 player might not be worth a lot to you in a few years time, they contain enough reclaimable materials to make them a valuable commodity in the right hands. Enter the newest development of recycling: urban mining.
1. You might imagine that your new phone will last forever… Photograph: Jorge Quinteros
Today, we live in an age of plenty in which we are happy to dispose of our electronic consumables when they become tired, either for an upgrade or because it is cheaper to replace them than it is to repair them.
2. But after a couple of years of wear and tear… Photograph: joelogon
There are now some 2.6 billion cell phones in the world, two and a half times as many as 10 years ago, with 200 million in the US alone, not to mention the countless other electronic devices we own, from music players to games consoles to sat navs.
3. …or a nasty accident, you’re ready to be rid of it. Photograph: MikeFinkelstein
All this just leaves clutter on our hands; who is ever going to use a 10-year-old cell phone, after all, let alone consider buying one from you in order to use it? Contrary to what you might think, there probably is someone out there who really would like to buy your phone — not to sign-up to a cheap call plan but to strip it of the valuable materials used to build it, from iridium and indium, to antimony and bismuth. With mineral prices at an all time high, now is a better time than ever to get mining.
4. You don’t want to throw it away… Photograph: Steve Bullivant
Furthermore, there are also two very good green reasons to recycle your phone. Firstly, there are only so many materials in the world, and if we continue to consume them, then eventually there will simply be no more of them. While microchips and green technology are changing the way that we live, we only have finite resources with which to build them. Secondly, if you do dispose of your phone or your mp3 player, then it will simply be adding to the mountains of waste that are disposed of every year. All the better, then, to feed it back into the system!
5. So you hold onto it. Photograph: Oracio Alvarado
For the urban miner, it doesn’t matter whether your device is working or broken, new or old — what is at stake is mineral content, including elements such as copper, iron, manganese, nickel, palladium, platinum, tin and zinc.
6. However, it’s easy enough to recycle — and it’s worthwhile to do so. Photograph: georgehotelling
There are two paths recycling can take: either you can hand over your device to ensure that its battery is properly disposed of and that it is recycled, or you can find a business that will buy it from you for a small amount.
7. The devices are then disassembled… Photograph: jurvetson
According to some estimates, up to 30 times as much gold can be found in cell phone circuitry as can be found in the gold ore processed in gold mines (some 150 grams, or 5.3 ounces, per ton, compared to a measly 5 grams, or 0.18 ounces per ton) — meaning that mining electronic waste really is as lucrative as striking gold. To add to that, the same quantity of cell phones also contains 100kg (220lb) of copper and 3kg (6.6lb) of silver, as well as numerous other materials.
8. And broken into their component materials. Photograph: tuppus
After the devices are processed and the materials separated, these valuable metals can be sold on as high quality raw materials to build new products, which in turn might some day be recycled.
9. From which the materials can be extracted and reused… Photograph: ahisgett
It is not just the most valuable of materials that are being mined, either. Increasingly, the process is being used to describe the reclamation of other valuable goods from waste, from glass and cardboard to plastics. Indeed, everywhere you look, value can be found.
“To some, it’s just a mountain of garbage,” Nozomu Yamanaka, manager of the Eco-Systems recycling plant, told Reuters. “But for others it’s a gold mine.”
10. …and could even be turned into the luxuries of tomorrow. Photograph: blakespot