Every year some 50 million tons of electronic waste are discarded, a weight greater than that of “enough Eiffel Towers to occupy the entire island of Manhattan,” according to the United Nations. Mobile phones, computers or video consoles hide precious metals inside, which can be recycled to create jewelry. And some brands take advantage of the gold and silver from these devices to create bracelets, necklaces and earrings.
Only 17.4% of e-waste worldwide is recycled, according to data from the 2020 Global E-Waste Monitor report. Of the rest, some ends up in landfills where it breaks down and releases toxins into the air, soil and groundwater. A problem that could worsen considering that the amount of electronic waste is expected to increase at an alarming rate in the coming years. If in 2019 more than 53 million tons of this waste were generated, in 2030 the figure will rise to 74 million, according to the aforementioned report.
These devices are often rich in precious metals and minerals that are good conductors of electricity, such as gold, silver, platinum, and copper. “Electronics companies spend a fortune buying and processing precious minerals, 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, which create jewelry from gold or silver from electronic waste.
In the case of AuTerra, the refining process begins with the manual dismantling of these devices and the separation of their components. “The circuit boards go through a crusher before being introduced into the furnace, which results in two materials: slag, which is a by-product that can be used in road construction, and a mixed metallic mass,” they explain. company sources. This mass is a combination of copper, gold, silver and other metals, which finally go through a recycling process and are melted down “to guarantee a pure and high-quality material.”
The environmental impact of mining
Recycling these devices could also help reduce mining, an activity with a great impact on the environment. In addition to causing direct destruction of habitats, it causes the displacement of fauna, a loss of vegetation, deforestation, erosion and the alteration of soil profiles, according to a report on the social and environmental impacts of mining activities in the Union European.
Extracting just ten grams of gold displaces nearly five tons of earth, according to AuTerra, which portrays gold mining as “a destructive industry that results in blighted landscapes, displaced communities, and the release of multiple toxic compounds into the air and groundwater.” ”. An environmental impact that in theory could be reduced if gold was extracted directly from electronic waste, according to sources from Lylie, a jewelry brand that works with a refinery in the United Kingdom to extract precious metals from these devices: “A typical mobile contains 0 2 grams of gold and, with an average life expectancy of just 22 months, mining and refining it results in a lower carbon footprint than primary mined gold.”
From an ecological point of view, “recycled gold is the best option, since two thirds of the planet’s gold has already been extracted.” In addition, from Lylie they emphasize that when extracting a ton of minerals from the earth, a yield of 30 grams of gold is obtained. On the other hand, with a ton of electronic waste, “about 300 grams of this metal is obtained.”
“Our most important extraction operations should be carried out in junkyards and recycling centers, instead of sensitive ecological areas and ancestral lands,” they point out from AuTerra. Even so, turning e-waste into gold still comes with some challenges. In addition to the fact that some technologies are particularly expensive and inefficient, it is important that the process is carried out properly: “If recycling is not carried out correctly and in a controlled environment, there may 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 all its jewelry would be made 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 enormous potential that lies here,” they say in Lylie, indicating that this type of jewelry will be a trend in the future. For now, this and other companies have already laid the foundations to achieve an ambitious goal: building a more circular industry.
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