Precious Metals in Tablets

November 5, 2014

The precious metals found in e-waste is fast becoming a hot topic among e-cyclers around the globe. More and more people are discovering the lucrative possibility of recovering a number of valuable metals, such as silver, gold, platinum and palladium, from electronic waste. Much is to be gained by studying the nature and process of recovering precious metals, especially those present in tablets.

Tablet use is set to rise in coming years — a fact that will no doubt contribute to the constantly growing e-waste stream in America. In fact, tablet use is increasing exponentially according to a study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2013. More than four in 10 Americans now own a tablet, and among 18- to 29-year-olds, nearly 50% own a tablet.

Such growth has been achieved in just a short time. It was only 2010 when Apple debuted its first iPad. Yet today, the iPad, along with brand-name tablets from Samsung, Amazon, Asus and others, is one of the most common household devices in the country. In fact, according to Giacom.com, 25% of all computers made today are tablets.

Considering that the turnover rate for electronic devices is, on average, about two years, it is easy to see that if every American does in fact discard his or her tablet on a two-year cycle, e-waste is going to be an even more significant problem. Already, e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in America.

Tablets’ contribution to the e-waste stream

While tablets are fast becoming a top choice for consumers, they are also quickly becoming the leading cause of e-waste as well. Recent figures show that mobile devices (including tablets and smartphones) are disposed the most out of all electronic devices used by consumers when measured per unit. Yet, mobile devices have the lowest per-unit recycling rate in comparison to other electronic devices. This means that many tablets and mobile devices are contributing heavily to the e-waste stream, and show no signs of slowing down.

Understanding the value of your tablet

Even as many tablets are either heading for discard or are already becoming obsolete, many of us do not know the value tossed away when a tablet reaches the end of its lifespan. One of the most interesting things about electronics is that the composition of much of the circuitry contains gold. While the gold amounts may be considered insignificant in a single device, multiplying to a much larger scale is a different story.

According to the EPA, circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and other precious metals that can be mined from earthen ores. In light of the fact that mining can be dangerous for workers, as well as extremely detrimental to the environment, these statistics on precious metals recovery show the promise that electronics recycling has to offer.

Tablets are similar to smartphones in terms of precious metal recovery. The EPA estimates that recycled smartphones contain about 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pound of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium. Also, according to the EPA, Americans actually throw away $60 million in gold and silver annually by tossing their cell phones.

Considering the growth rate of the tablet market, the possibilities for precious metal recovery could be extremely lucrative, bringing in millions of dollars every year when the proper certified recycling methods are utilized.

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The challenges of precious metal recovery in tablets

Recovering precious metals from tablets is not without its challenges, however. One drawback is the damage to the environment that can be caused when circuit boards are dissolved to extract precious metals. In countries like India, where many informal and noncertified recycling and extraction methods are used, the chance of chemical pollution is high.

In these instances, which are now widespread across the Third World, informal trash collectors use dangerous chemicals such as cyanide and nitric acid to separate the tablet hardware and circuitry from the precious metals desired. Because these practices lack proper facilities or certified equipment, the runoff from chemical extraction poses a great risk of contaminating water sources, such as nearby streams, rivers or lakes, and can even seep into groundwater.

Innovative solutions for recovering precious metals from tablets

Despite the challenges, researchers are fast approaching new and improved methods for precious metal recovery from tablets and other electronics. Many of these involve ditching the chemicals and turning to more bio-efficient materials for extraction. These innovations are making precious metal recovery more accessible to recyclers and better for the environment as well.

For instance, researchers in Finland have discovered a way to use fungi to extract precious metals in electronics. The methods involve incorporating the mycelium of certain types of fungi to act as biomass filters for precious metals such as gold from cell phones, tablets and other electronics. So far, the method shows promising signs of effectiveness, recovering up to 80% of precious metals per device.

As more and more recycling companies take the lead to research and study innovative and environmentally friendly ways to extract precious metals in tablets, the practice could become more common. Not only that, but due to the high reuse demand for precious metals like gold (for use in many applications, such as jewelry, new electronics, automotive materials and much more), precious metal recovery from tablets could become an industry unto itself.

The future of precious metals in tablets

The future of precious metals recovery in tablets is highly dependent on improved electronics recycling. Collection of electronic waste must increase in order for the U.S. and other countries to capitalize on the sheer value contained in discarded electronics. This means increasing awareness among consumers and implementing more opportunities for tablet users to discard their devices properly.

Once collected, tablets and other electronics have much to offer those who venture into precious metals recovery. Our environment can benefit as well. Precious metal recovery has the potential to decrease dependence on harmful mining practices, providing a more sustainable cause for the resources we need to thrive in our constantly changing and rapidly advancing world.