Every year around 50 million tons of e-waste is disposed of, a weight greater than “enough Eiffel Towers to occupy the entire island of Manhattan,” according to the United Nations. Cell phones, computers, or video consoles hide precious metals inside, which can be recycled to make jewelry. And some gold and silver brands make use of these devices to make bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.
Only 17.4% of e-waste is recycled worldwide, according to data from the 2020 Global E-Waste Monitor. The rest, some of it ends up in landfills where it decomposes, releasing toxins into the air, soil and groundwater. A problem that could be exacerbated given that the amount of e-waste is expected to increase at an alarming rate in the coming years. If more than 53 million tons of this waste were produced in 2019, in 2030 the number will rise to 74 million, according to the aforementioned report.
These devices are often rich in precious metals and metals that are good conductors of electricity, such as gold, silver, platinum, and copper. “Electronics companies spend a fortune buying and processing precious metals, only to see them buried in landfills,” says the World Economic Forum. It is precisely there that some jewelry companies such as Lylie, Nowa and AuTerra have seen an opportunity to create gold or silver jewelry from electronic waste.
In the case of AuTerra, the refining process begins with the manual disassembly of these devices and the separation of their components. They explained that “the circuit boards pass through a crusher before being fed into the kiln, which results in two materials: slag, a by-product that can be used in road construction, and a mixed mineral mass.” This nugget is a mixture of copper, gold, silver, and other metals, which finally undergoes a recycling process and is melted down to “ensure a pure, high-quality material.”
environmental impact of mining
Recycling these devices can also help reduce mining, an activity that has a significant impact on the environment. In addition to directly causing habitat destruction, it causes fauna displacement, vegetation loss, deforestation, soil erosion and alteration of soil profiles, according to a report on the social and environmental impacts of mining activities in the European Union.
Extracting just ten grams of gold displaces nearly five tons from the Earth, according to AuTerra, which depicts gold mining as “a destructive industry leading to devastated landscapes, displacing communities, and releasing multiple toxic compounds into the air and groundwater.” . An environmental impact that could theoretically be reduced if the gold was extracted directly from e-waste, according to sources from Lylie, a jewelry brand that works with a refinery in the UK to extract precious metals from such devices: “A typical mobile phone contains 0 2 grams of gold, on average With a life expectancy of only 22 months, gold prospecting and refining has a lower carbon footprint than gold extracted from primary mines.”
From an environmental point of view, “recycled gold is the best option, since two-thirds of the planet’s gold has already been mined.” In addition, they confirmed from Lylie that when a ton of minerals is extracted from the ground, a yield of 30 grams of gold is obtained. On the other hand, with a ton of e-waste “about 300 grams of this metal is obtained”.
From Otera, they noted, “the most important extractions should take place in junkyards and recycling centers, rather than in ecologically sensitive areas and ancestral lands.” However, turning e-waste into gold still comes with some challenges. In addition to the fact that some technologies are expensive and not particularly efficient, it is important that the process is carried out correctly: “If recycling is not done properly and in a controlled environment, there can be negative environmental consequences.”
Despite these limitations, more and more jewelry companies are showing interest in recycled metals. In 2020, the Danish brand Pandora, one of the largest manufacturers on the planet, announced that by 2025 it will make all its jewelry from recycled gold and silver. “Considering that 7% of the world’s gold is currently found in obsolete electronic devices, no one can argue with the huge potential here,” they say at Lylie, indicating that this type of jewelry will be a trend in the future. Currently, this company and others have already laid the foundations for an ambitious goal: to build a more circular industry.
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