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The Potential of Urban Mining

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At a time of growing resources shortages, electronic waste is a treasure trove of opportunity.

Piles of discarded computers, phones and television sets tower toward the sky. These stacks of e-waste will be sorted through, their contents picked to pieces and eventually refined to retrieve the precious metals and traces of rare earth elements (REEs) inside. In Delhi’s string of scrap yards and warehouses, 1500 tons of disused electronics from domestic and overseas consumers are dumped every day.

This is where 85 percent of the developed world’s e-waste ends up, according to the latest study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.

Looking like electronics graveyards, filled with stacks of hard drives, printers and keyboards, these facilities are where the work of urban mining takes place. In Delhi’s networks of formal and informal recycling units, where precious metals are salvaged from unwanted skeletons, an estimated 8500 mobile phones, 5500 televisions and 3000 computers are dismantled daily. The city generates 30,000 tons of e-waste annually, a figure that is projected to reach 50,000 tons by 2015.

The United Nations Environmental Programme estimates that every year 50 million tons of e-waste are generated globally. To put this into perspective: if the electronic items were loaded into containers on a train, the train would stretch once around the earth.

Metal deposits in e-waste are up to 40 to 50 times richer than ore extracted from mines. For example, one ton of gold ore yields about 5 grams of gold, but one ton of phone circuitry yields about 150 grams, 30 times as much. Urban mining presents an opportunity to reclaim and recycle precious metals and REEs that are used in prolific consumer and communication goods.

But opportunities are being lost. Just 15-20 percent of the world’s e-waste is recycled annually.

Reportedly, $21 billion — equal to the GDP of Zambia — worth of gold and silver are used in electronic gadgets each year, a promising reserve for any urban miner. Yet less than 15 percent of gold and silver is recovered from e-waste worldwide.

REEs are a group of 17 elements used in everything from weapons systems to green energy technology. Ibis World research found that green tech is 2013’s fastest growing industry. REEs play a central role in the construction of clean energy products: around 10 kg are used in electric and hybrid cars, double that of gas-guzzling cars, and two tons of rare earth magnets (containing 30 percent REEs) are used in the largest wind turbines. China maintains a stronghold on the highly sought after metals, controlling 97 percent of global production. As new supplies are pursued, urban mining presents a treasure trove of opportunity.

So why isn’t everyone diving in?

The Globalization of E-Waste

To do it right, urban mining requires proper facilities to retrieve precious metals. Too often, e-waste is incorrectly managed and the long-list of toxic materials contained within these mountains of electronics wreak human and environmental havoc.

Despite trade restrictions on hazardous waste, e-waste is treated like any other commodity, traded in the global supply chain to reap maximum advantage. It is ten times cheaper for the United States to ship e-waste to Asia than it is to process it domestically. Developing countries with lax regulation and cheap labor become e-waste dumpsites for unscrupulous dealers, who fatten profit margins by avoiding the responsibility of dealing with e-waste ethically but more expensively in home countries.

Greenpeace contends that developed countries are poisoning the poor by exporting their e-waste overseas.

With bare hands and no protective facemasks, workers – children among them – are exposed to toxic fumes on a daily-basis. Tube-lights, motherboards and toner cartridges are burnt on open flames, spewing lead, mercury and cadmium into the air. Greenpeace recently released a short documentary filmed in Delhi. It shows a young girl stirring a cocktail of circuit boards and electric cables stewing in a plastic drum filled with acid, traces of copper and silver stripped out in the process, the depleted acid poured into local sewers. Others burn cords coated with PVC to recover the copper within. A child, wearing just a singlet, shorts and sandals, is shown chopping up computer batteries containing highly toxic cadmium with a meat cleaver. He is just one of between 35,000 and 45,000 kids aged 10-14 years, who work in Delhi’s e-waste industry.

Samples of these “facilities” showed a high level of metal contaminants in the worksites and surrounding areas.

China is another alarming case. In Guiyu, Guangdong Province, e-waste drives the economy, with 100,000 people (80 percent of the town’s population) engaged in picking apart and processing the e-waste. Groundwater in Guiyu is undrinkable, poisoned by electronic pollution. Deadly levels of mercury and other toxins were recorded in water and soil by the UN. More troubling facts about Guiyu: 70 percent of children have elevated blood lead levels and 80 percent suffer from respiratory diseases, pregnant women are six times more likely to suffer miscarriages and there has also been a surge in cases of leukemia.

The 1989 Basel Convention, which has more than 180 states parties, calls for countries to: minimize hazardous waste through cleaner production, to treat and dispose of e-waste as close to origin as possible, and stipulates that export of e-waste is illegal without the correct licenses. In 1998 it was amended to include the Basel Ban, prohibiting OECD countries from exporting e-waste to non-OECD nations. This amendment was passed despite opposition from countries like Australia and Japan.

Regardless of these trade rules, developing countries have become toxic dumping grounds for the global flows of exported e-waste. Rather than processing e-waste as close to origin as possible, in the country that consumed and exhausted the products, the developed world’s e-waste (50-80 percent of what is recycled) ends up in nations like India, China, Pakistan, Ghana and Nigeria.

One way these traders get around the Basel Convention is by exploiting a loophole that allows imports and exports of used electronics as donations. The e-waste is said to be “working equipment” and illegal activity is masked as charity.

The Way Forward

How do we address the human and environmental impacts of e-waste while realizing the potential of urban mining?

Restricting the flow of e-waste is one approach. But imagine the level of investigation and enforced regulation needed to track and thwart illegal supply chains. Trade is conducted secretly meaning there is no quantitative data on volumes, however, efforts have been made to map trade routes

Champions of free trade see the Basel Convention as a direct challenge to an “open global market” and a concern not only for “commercial interests in rich countries” but for “businessmen in developing countries” too. This view means, for example, in the cycle of e-waste it’s natural for labor to be exploited in India and technology to be exploited in Japan. India reportedly ships 200 tons of e-waste annually to Japan, Singapore and Belgium, where smelting units retrieve trace metals like gold, silver and platinum. 

The Basel Action Network counters this view in a report, stating that the comparative advantage argument, a cornerstone of economic globalization, gives workers in developing countries a choice between “poverty and poison.” According to the report, ‘‘The export of toxic wastes to poorer economies for recycling is an unacceptable transfer of pollution to those least able to afford it. It can only be justified by brute economics and not from a moral or environmental standpoint.’’

The flow of e-waste is a complex issue. Since 2006, the two main growth areas in global e-waste trade are exports to Asia and internal markets, including developing countries trading between themselves. The International Labour Organization points out: ‘‘One has to think carefully of the linear assumptions, such as e-waste simply being shipped from developed to developing countries, as there is substantial internal and regional trade.’’

Whether you see e-waste as a hazardous burden or urban mining bonanza, the fact remains that developing countries produce more e-waste domestically than they import. Based on a 2010 estimate China produces 2.3 million tons of e-waste annually, second only to the United States. In India, it’s estimated that illegal imports accounted for about 10 percent of the nation’s e-waste in 2010. The country is expected to produce 1.72 million tons internally by 2020, more than tripling 2010 levels.

Civil and environmental engineering professor Eric Williams told Discovery News: ‘‘Global volumes of computer e-waste are expected to triple between 2010 and 2025 and by around 2025, the developing world will generate double the developed world’s waste computers.’’ For this reason, he believes efforts should focus on formalizing the sector and cleaning up impacts of backyard recycling rather than on banning exports.

E-waste provides an income to hundreds of thousands of people living in poverty. India’s informal sector processes 95 percent of e-waste and employs about 80,000 people. Investing in raising the standards and processes used by these vulnerable people should be a priority of all urban mining initiatives. By creating incentives for smaller operators to deliver retrieved parts to central processing units, where they can be sent to certified refineries, health issues would be mitigated and metal yields from urban mining maximized.

India’s award-winning recycling company, Attero, is a leading example of how urban mining can address e-waste challenges and generate profit without damaging workers’ health and the environment.

Chief operating officer, Rohan Gupta told The Diplomat that Attero has been working with the informal sector to “ensure environmentally responsible and safe e-waste management” through best practice training and channeling of materials to its state-of-the-art facility in Roorkee.

‘‘The informal sector is characterized by its unorganized approach, right from the collection of e-waste to its processing. They make use of crude and primitive techniques like open air incineration and acid stripping for processing e-waste, which not only release toxins and pollutants into the eco-system and pose a threat to the environment but also harm the health of the workers employed, especially the women and the children.’’

With the e-waste stream rapidly increasing, Gupta said Attero recognized the only path toward responsible recycling was through integration of the informal sector into the formal sector. The company works in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (a World Bank entity) to achieve this aim. Attero’s system involves informal workers collecting e-waste, which is then channeled to 24 warehouses across the country for delivery to the certified refinery, where it is mechanically dismantled and shredded. The e-waste is then sent to the metallurgical section where pure metals, including REEs, are extracted using “patent pending technological solutions.” Gupta explained that e-waste contains more than 60 metals that can be recovered by recycling and reused.

Attero’s facilities are low cost, compact and easily installed, challenging the idea that recycling systems must be capital-intensive. ‘‘Such localized e-waste processing facilities offer a far more feasible solution for managing e-waste, particularly in emerging economies, where a major chunk of the world’s e-waste ends up.’’

Gupta said one of the industry’s biggest challenges is “the Indian psyche of making profit out of e-waste rather than disposing of it ethically.” India’s informal sector continues to thrive, with e-waste dealers preferring to sell their materials to scrap yard urban miners, despite the health hazards, because it proves more lucrative.

The Potential of Urban Mining

Different approaches are being taken to address the idea of responsibility and to tap into the urban mining potential of e-waste. Emphasis is being placed on upstream solutions — by placing the recycling responsibility with manufacturers, as little as possible is left for consumers to do.

In Australia, the level of e-waste is astonishing – it represents three times the amount of municipal waste in landfills. In 2009, 234 million electronic items were sent to landfill. That is roughly 10 items for every person in Australia. Despite being one of the biggest consumers of electronic goods, the nation’s overall e-waste recycling rate is dismal, at just 4 percent.

After stalling on the issue since it was first brought to attention two decades ago, Australia has recently taken action, following the lead of countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan — where the onus of recycling e-waste is put on manufacturers. The concept is called “Extended Producer Responsibility.” Taiwan has the best e-waste recycling rate in the world, at 82 percent, followed by South Korea and Japan at 75 percent. A product stewardship scheme on TVs and computers is being rolled out in Australia and drop-off points established around the country to combat the meager recycling rate.

In this way, manufacturers are not only obliged to design take-back schemes for electronic goods, they are also encouraged to design “greener,” more easily recycled products. Take an innovation like phonebloks, the concept of a “phone worth keeping,” which is currently being developed by Motorola. These phones are designed to come apart in individual sections like Lego and each piece can be replaced separately. Initiatives like this help address the throw away mentality of consumerism.

Worldwide, 1.6 billion mobile phones were sold in 2011. Given that phones are replaced every couple of years, that is a lot of urban mining potential.  One ton of mobile phones — containing more than 100 kg of copper, three kg of silver and 200 grams of gold, along with other valuable materials like cobalt — has a total metal value of $15,000.

ReCellular, a mobile phone take-back company in the U.S., recycles 4 million phones annually and pulls revenue of $75 million. In 2010 it had enough gold to make 1,500 wedding bands and enough copper to make two Statues of Liberty.

The REEs market is expected to be valued at $4-6 billion by 2015, up from $1.5 billion in 2009. The research and development of REEs recycling is still in its infancy and while some companies explore extraction possibilities, others look for ways to decrease their reliance on these elements. For instance, Honda has developed a method of recycling REEs from its car batteries, while Toyota and Ford are working on finding alternative methods and metal substitutes to manufacture their cars.

The Bigger Picture

With precious metals becoming increasingly scarce, the challenges involved in urban mining should be considered against the impact of open cut mining. Land conflicts that displace indigenous communities, for the sake of mining projects are rife around the world. Experts estimate that mining has displaced 1.5 million people over the last 50 years in India alone.

To illustrate the decline of metal reserves: tantalum found in phones, computers and cameras is expected to be completely depleted in 30 years, and become extremely scarce by 2015.

As the earth’s metal resources are gradually depleted, urban mining warrants a closer look. While e-waste’s supply of metals will fall short of demand, urban mining could complement existing forms of mining and take pressure off finite reserves. At the University of Leuven in Belgium, Koen Binnemans is leading a team of researchers looking at innovative methods of REEs extraction. He told Chemistry World that 20 percent of global demand for rare earths could be met by urban mining. Currently, only 1 percent of REEs are recycled.

Piles of e-waste sits corroding in landfills, leeching toxic mercury and lead into the earth. Meanwhile, mining companies and governments push into new territories to meet future demand for rare earths and precious metals.

The next mining frontier? The deep sea.

The world’s first deep sea mining project is gaining momentum off the coast of Papuan New Guinea. A lengthy legal dispute between the PNG government and Nautilus Minerals was resolved recently and the controversial project is moving ahead.

While the seafloor is soon to be exploited for copper and gold, space is also being explored. Tapping into reserves of rare earths on the Moon and Near Earth Asteroids is just a matter of time, with preparations underway, extra-terrestrial mining is thought feasible by 2050.

Demand for REEs and precious metals has stakeholders reaching deeper and higher, dipping into the sea and launching into space, in search of untapped metal deposits. But what about the untapped deposits in a less lofty place like landfill? As a never-ending flow of shiny, nifty electronics flood the market, investment in urban mining may hold the key to lessening the impact of the next generation of gadgets.