Wednesday, October 21, 2015
The Riches of the Digital E-Waste Land - $68 million in gold, silver, palladium and copper waiting to be E-harvested for Charity
One man’s junk is another man’s riches cannot be more true when you look at the recycling efforts being made with electronic waste generated by the digital revolution.

With every new Apple iPhone release that breaks sales records, somebody has to dispose of the phone in a responsible matter via recycling efforts, as E-waste contains toxic materials that cannot be sent to landfill sites. Even with this knowledge it's estimated that only 30% of E-waste is recycled globally with the remainder sometimes going to landfill sites in Asia and Africa in a growing multi-billion E-waste industry.

In China, there is a city of 200,000 people, Guiya (200 miles NE of Hong Kong on the SE coast) that is the E-waste capital of world that processes 1.5 million lbs. a year (7,500 tons), a small fraction of the over estimated 50 million tons generated worldwide.

The mass adoption of smartphones has caused a spike in e-waste as consumers change phones every 1-3 years. This e-waste is going to get higher as the next wave of consumer electronics, wearable devices, from companies such as Misfit, Jawbone, Withings and Garmin grow in adoption. These devices are fitness and health trackers that can be worn as a watch, wristband, jewelry/bracelet and clip-ons. These devices have a companion app that works on your smartphone to monitor your heart rate, sleep activity and body movements (I will be having a closer look at wearables in a later blog).

I believe Canada is a leader with established programs for E-waste recycling initiatives that are available in municipalities across Canada. The Ontario Electronic Stewardship’s recycling efforts boasts that 87% of E-waste is recycled in Ontario. that is dramatically better than the 30% rate we see in other countries. Part of the model in Ontario is an environmental levy fee for all new purchases of electronics to fund the collection of E-waste. But there is still a lot of phones that are collecting dust in homes that need to be disposed of. According to Stats Canada there are two unwanted cell phones in each Canadian household that has not been disposed off.

The chart below illustrates the stats by province and disposal habits.

Governments can encourage people to recycle, but in a market economy it needs to make economic sense to sustain recycling efforts, as it will need to earn a return on capital. E-waste contains valuable metals like aluminum, gold, silver, palladium and copper and recycling these metals are cheaper than mining from new sources in some cases.

A ton of used mobile phones, approximately 6,000 handsets, yields about 3.5 kg of silver, 340 grams of gold, 140 grams of palladium, and 130 kg of copper, valued at over US $15,000 ($20,000 Cdn) based on market prices.

Check out this video on how they mine gold from computers.

Let’s see what the potential bounty is in Canada for E-waste recycling/mining based on a 2 year lifecycle for smartphones and 28.5 million smartphone users in Canada in 2015. This means that there are 14.25 million cellphones or 1,786 tons of e-waste generated every year worth $35.7 million ($20,000 Cdn/ton) in recycled precious minerals. Two phones per household are still not disposed of and it is estimated at 27.2 million (13.6 million HHs) phones weighing 3,400 tons valued at $68 million are still waiting to be harvested.

E-waste recyclers offer 10-cents per lb. for raw e-waste or $200 per ton. The Electronic Recyclers Association offers $5 for laptops and $1.40 - $120 for smartphones depending on the model in addition to the 10-cents/lb. Based on these rates the value of one ton of scrap smartphones (6,000) start at $8,400 per ton.

To encourage collection at the grassroots levels, charity fundraising programs are available to community organizations to help collect E-waste. The David Suzuki Foundation or Electronic Recyclers Association would be a good start to creating your own collection day at your office or neighborhood. So join in on the E-harvest for charity this fall, or find a place to drop off your E-waste where you live for a charity of your choice.
- Martin Seto
About Me
Martin Seto

Martin Seto is the producer of the Canadian Online Publishing Awards (COPAS) with 30 years of life expereince in technology, advertising, media and creative exploration. He can be reached at marty(dot)seto(at) or 416-907-6562, and on LinkedIn.

Most Recent Blog Comment
Lorene Shyba says:
Full of terrific information, Thanks!...
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