Mining for Gold—and Other Creative Ways Companies Are Combating E-Waste

By Russ Banham, Contributor

The facts surrounding electronic waste, commonly referred to as e-waste, are staggering. Although nearly all e-waste can be recycled, 60 percent ends up in landfills, where toxic metals leach into the environment and can cause severe damage to human kidneys, blood, and central and peripheral nervous systems.

More than 50 tons of e-waste is produced each year through the discarding of used or unwanted electrical and electronic devices, many nearing the end of their useful purpose.  In an effort to show the magnitude of the e-waste problem and promote recycling, artist Benjamin Von Wong worked with Dell to create photograph sculptures using two tones of old laptops, keyboards and circuit boards – all of which can be recycled.

The message? The past can power the future but time is of the essence. A 2010 report issued by the United Nations indicated that the volume of e-waste could increase by as much as 500 percent in developing countries alone by 2020. Newer statistics are hard to come by, but the overwhelming consensus is that much can be done to positively alter the status quo and combat these staggering 2020 figures. Here’s a look at just a few creative solutions for tackling the mounting problem of e-waste.

Revitalize the Manufacturing Sector

Inside of the 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste produced in 2016 lays approximately $55 billion of gold, silver, copper, platinum, palladium, and other high-value recoverable materials, according to a 2017 report by Global e-Waste Monitor. That figure exceeds the gross domestic product of most countries in the world, and presents a compelling financial incentive for municipalities and businesses to consider ways to pursue more robust e-waste management.

E-waste mining is one innovative solution to recover these precious materials. With $35 million in financing, BlueOak Resources has built an urban refinery in Osceola, Arkansas to recover “technology metals” from 15 million pounds of electronic scrap each year. The first of its kind in the U.S., the refinery exemplifies a type of development that can reinvigorate the American manufacturing sector.

“By coupling innovative technology approaches with the United States’ wealth of manufacturing expertise and talent, we can transform what has become a crippling global problem into a tremendous economic opportunity,” Privahini Bradoo, CEO of BlueOak, said.

If there’s anything BlueOak Resources proves, it’s that finding ways to extract valuable metals from electronic scraps is not only good for the environment; it is also a healthy financial investment.

“By coupling innovative technology approaches with the United States’ wealth of manufacturing expertise and talent, we can transform what has become a crippling global problem into a tremendous economic opportunity,”

– Privahini Bradoo, CEO of BlueOak

Look for Gold

In addition to mining, companies are forging creative partnerships and rethinking the treatment of the precious metals hidden in technology e-waste. “When you think about the fact that there is up to 800 times more gold in a ton of motherboards than a ton of ore from the earth,” Jeff Clarke, Dell vice chairman, explained, “you start to realize the enormous opportunity we have to put valuable materials to work.”

Recognizing that approximately $60 million in gold and silver is discarded each year by Americans through unwanted phones alone, Dell has begun to work with actress and jewelry designer Nikki Reed to recycle excess gold from old computers collected through programs like Dell Reconnect and Asset Resale and Recycling Services and turn it into earrings, bracelets, and rings.

The effort is part of Dell’s “Legacy of Good” program, which outlines social and environmental milestones to achieve by 2020 (and beyond). Altogether, Dell has pledged to recover 2 billion pounds of used electronics and reuse 100 million pounds of recycled content back into their products, all by 2020.

With the help of Dell’s environmental partner, Wistron GreenTech, these efforts have resulted in a process for extracting the precious mineral to use in Reed’s sustainable design line of jewelry, The Circular Collection, through her company Bayou with Love.

More Recycling, More Jobs

Job creation through repairing electronics is another booming creative solution that tackles two birds with one stone. In addition to recycling old electronic material, these programs provide employment opportunities for often underserved or vulnerable communities.

Homeboy Recycling (formerly Isidore Electronics Recycling), for instance, employs former gang members and prisoners in Los Angeles to recycle much of the city’s electronics. “I felt like if I asked people in Los Angeles to give me their electronics, they would, and I could hire people with records to do the recycling,” founder Kabira Stokes told Fast Company in 2017.

The company accepts donations, sorts through the equipment, and then dispatches the ones still working into its reuse department. Those products that don’t make the grade are taken apart to recover and recycle the valuable minerals and other materials. As of early last year, Homeboy Recycling had employed 27 re-entry members and recycled upwards of 2.2 million tons of electronics. According to Stokes, the model is “the future of capitalism.”

IFIXIT.org does something similar, repairing and upgrading yesterday’s tech devices for sale at affordable prices to people unable or unwilling to pay for newer, pricier versions. Through its services, the company is making a dent in the e-waste problem, creating jobs, and giving people access to affordable products—what one might call a triple bottom line.

With millions of tons of electronics thrown to the wayside each year, there are endless opportunities to repurpose valuable materials and aid employment. Whether a tossed device becomes someone else’s next device, a pair of earrings, or the inner workings of the next new device — what is yesterday’s trash might just become tomorrow’s future.

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated business journalist and author who writes frequently about the intersection of business and technology.