The rise of technology means an increase in electronic waste, but could urban mining be the solution?
There are currently 2.53 billion smartphone users across the world. That’s a lot of technology being produced en masse. The number is expected to rise, especially considering that once a consumer makes their first purchase, they will likely upgrade to a newer smartphone model periodically. This has led to a need for recycling precious materials and the subsequent rise of urban mining.
Urban Mining Reintroduced
Urban mining is not a new concept: it’s the process of recycling valuable materials, such as rare earth metals, that were originally used on buildings and products.
Smartphones contain up to 50 different metals, and finding a way to reclaim these materials would benefit the environment. In 2017 alone, approximately 1.57 billion smartphones were sold across the world.
There is an increased interest in the idea of putting urban farming to use on electronics. Europe, for example, would stand to benefit from the urban farming of smartphones since metals are used across all industries there. As it stands, due to the continent’s limited supply, 49 percent of its raw materials are imported from China.
While Europe has gone as far as passing legislation and emphasizing the vitality of recycling to ensure electronic waste is properly handled, they have no facilities that can fulfill the process of urban mining.
The Benefits of Urban Mining
Aside from rare earth metals, electronics contain about 40 to 50 times more gold than ores mined on the fields. More specifically, the annual production of electronics uses 320 tons of gold and over 7,500 tons of silver—a combined value of $21 billion dollars—of which only 15 percent is being recovered presently.
This is why Ruediger Kuehr, Director of the Sustainable Cycles Program at United Nations University, co-founded a partnership between academic businesses and the government called Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) initiative. The organization’s idea is that by bringing these two elements together, urban mining can be turned into something that is not only economically profitable but also environmentally sustainable.
“We wanted both perspectives working in order to balance their different agendas and interests,” said Federico Magalini, Project Manager at E-Waste Academy.
They aren’t alone either. BlueOak Resources built a facility in Arkansas, the first urban mining refinery in the U.S. dedicated to reclaiming valuable metals such as
“Every day, U.S. consumers dispose of enough cell phones to cover 50 football fields,” said Privahini Bradoo, Co-Founder of BlueOak.
This refinery makes great use of the massive amount of electronic waste in the U.S. For more perspective, a ton of printed circuit boards roughly produces 10 ounces of gold whereas 100 tons of raw ore would need to be mined and processed to generate the same amount.
“For every ounce of gold that has to be mined in the field, we produce 30 tons of waste,” said Allen Hershkowitz, Senior Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Urban Program. “Compare that with recovering an ounce of gold from electronic waste—you’d eliminate that gigantic ecological burden.”
The Urban Mining Process
For SungEel HiTech, the process of urban mining consists of workers pulling batteries from electronics, draining power from the units, and then grinding them into powder. Once the powder has been produced, the metals can be effectively separated.
The process is just as simple in Europe, where devices are melted together in a furnace and then separated. Dr. Fricke-Begeman and his team, as part of the ADIR project, are looking for ways to refine the process.
“There are hundreds of different types of mobile phones so we need a device that is flexible and can handle all of them,” said Dr. Fricke-Begemann.
The project is currently developing a system where a machine that would open a mobile phone and remove its components, then a laser would separate components from the circuit board, and finally the materials would be sorted.
Companies Who Practice Urban Mining
Roughly 150 small-and medium-sized companies in Korea practice urban mining, most of which focus on the reclaiming of silver and gold. Four of these companies, however, can also reclaim cobalt and produce powder, from which metals are extracted.
These companies have been making waves in Korea, as $18.38 billion in metals were reclaimed in 2016. In doing so, 22 percent of the country’s total metal demand was met.
SungEel HiTech had a boost in clientele because of its work, making the company an integral part of the supply chain in battery manufacturing as an increasing amount of automaking companies have become interested in sourcing materials from urban mining.
According to Yum Un-Joo, Chairman of the Korea Urban Mining Association, recycled sources, when developed correctly, could be of great benefit to the economy in Korea, as well as making waves in the industry. SungEel HiTech stands as a great example of this as they have solidified their presence in the battery making industry.
Apple is no stranger to urban mining and has improved its robotic technology to make the process more efficient. Daisy, predecessor to Liam, is an automated robot that disassembles iPhones in order to reuse and recycle components that are still valuable to the company and consumers. Daisy can deconstruct 200 iPhones per day and gift cards are issued to those who donate. This initiative helps to foster a closed loop system between products and the manner in which they are repurposed.