Here’s an old idea that has caught the attention of commentators this week but with a new twist due in large part to the high price of the metals involved. Metals and material have been recycled for decades and in many countries considerable encouragement is given by governments in an effort to reduce raw material and energy consumption. But the rise in the price of gold, silver and many other metals used in the electronics industry has given the recycling of mobile phones, laptops and other electronic devices a major boost and promoted the phrase urban mining. The figure that caught my eye was a direct correlation to the mining industry ” one ton of ore from a gold mine produces just 5 grams (0.18 ounce) of gold on average, whereas one ton of discarded mobile phones can yield 150 grams (5.3 ounces) or more, according to an article in Reuters.
The article goes on to say the same volume of discarded mobile phones also contains around 100 kg (220 lbs) of copper and 3 kg (6.6 lbs) of silver, among other metals. Hence the phrase urban miners used to describe the recycling industry that has grown up around this resource. The company being reported, Eco-System of Honjo, Japan typically produces about 200-300 kg (440-660 lbs) of gold bars a month with a 99.99 percent purity, worth about $5.9 million to $8.8 million. That’s apparently the equivalent of a small gold mine.
In a country with 128 million people with over 80% mobile phone ownership and who on average change them every 2 years 8 months, you would think there would be a never ending supply of raw material. But you would be wrong, only 10-20% of the phones discarded each year are recycled. Why? Largely because of fears that the phones contain personal data, people horde them away rather than risk releasing them for recycling. As PC’s, laptops and now even mobile phones have become the gateway to our bank, share dealings, health records, and in fact every item of sensitive data in our lives the risks are perceived to be ever greater of letting them fall into the wrong hands. Particularly in Japan where the use of the mobile phone is more advanced than in the US or Europe, phones can be used for payment of bills, move funds around bank accounts, pay rail and bus fares. Indeed the mobile phone is becoming the mobile wallet.
It does raise an interesting concept though.
As the world’s reserve of metals becomes ever smaller, to what extent can we access those already used and available in manufactured goods? Certainly we have only scratched the surface so far and the high prices of all metals will encourage this resource to be pursued much more vigorously in the future.