City treasure

  People always put old electronic devices aside, waiting for them to be needed again. And this day will never come.
  Do a cleanup at home! There may be a baby in the room! You should know that there may be precious metals and minerals hidden in many old things that have fallen to dust. They are urgently needed resources in the modern world. These “urban treasures” are full of important materials waiting to be discovered.
  In the world, even if there are not billions, there are millions of idle electronic devices, such as old mobile phones, forgotten gamepads, outdated stereos, obsolete computers and obsolete printers. They all contain copper, silver, and even gold, as well as a variety of precious rare earth elements. There is a view that we can use this huge resource pool to shift our attention from mining underground raw materials to exploring “urban minerals.” If the materials hidden in the old equipment can be recycled and applied to the new equipment, we don’t have to mine natural resources.
  James Horn, the project manager of the recycling organization WEEE Forum, said that as recycling efficiency increases and costs decrease, consumers have a better understanding of the correct way to dispose of waste, so urban mining will become a viable option. Taking the medals of the Tokyo Olympics as an example, Japan made about 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals from metals extracted from more than 6 million mobile phones and other discarded electronic products donated from various places. This kind of urban mining can help us build a more sustainable future while reducing our dependence on the remaining mineral deposits on the planet.
  For decades, we have been rapidly consuming the limited resources on the earth through the method of “mining raw materials-over consumption-putting them in landfills”. It is estimated that if the 7.8 billion people in the world reach the level of resource consumption of Europeans, we will need 2.8 earths, and according to the American way of life, we need 5 earths.
  The mining of raw materials has caused great harm to the environment. According to the UN’s “Global Resource Outlook”, the extractive industry accounts for about 40% of the world’s total carbon emissions and 10% of the loss of biodiversity. In the past 50 years, mining volume has tripled. Nowadays, many resources are becoming rarer and more expensive, and the environmental cost of mining is getting higher and higher.
  Horn said that “urban treasures” are not just electrical equipment, but also any items or materials that are left unused or abandoned in warehouses, shops, businesses, and residential buildings. So, have we made full use of these resources? Can urban mining completely replace traditional mining?
  Electrical and electronic waste is the most concerned because old mobile phones, laptops, kitchen supplies, televisions and other equipment contain precious metals such as gold, silver, palladium and copper that are needed to make new electronic devices.
  As many as 50 million tons of e-waste are generated worldwide each year, equivalent to 6,000 Eiffel Towers, and the annual growth rate is 3% to 4%. In 2016, Asia produced the most e-waste, reaching 18.2 million tons, the Americas 11.3 million tons, Africa 2.2 million tons, and Oceania 700,000 tons. Although the total amount of e-waste produced in Oceania is the smallest, the per capita output is the largest, at 17.3 kg, while in Africa it is 1.6 kg.
  Europe is the world’s second largest producer of electronic waste, discarding approximately 12.3 million tons of electronic equipment and batteries each year, of which 330,000 tons of copper and 31 tons of gold are hidden. And because old equipment usually contains more of these metals than new equipment, if they can be completely recycled, it will be enough to make the 14.3 million tons of new electronic equipment and batteries that Europeans need each year. It is estimated that Europe needs 2.9 million tons of plastics, 270,000 tons of copper, 3,500 tons of cobalt and 26 tons of gold each year to produce new equipment.
  Such a prospect is tempting-just re-use the materials we have already discovered without further plundering the earth.
  The former Belgian mining company Umeco has transformed into one of the world’s largest recycling companies, aiming to enter the urban mining market. It focuses on the recycling of batteries including electric vehicle batteries (mainly recycling copper, nickel, cobalt, and lithium). Its spokesperson Majilin Hills said: “Metals can be recycled indefinitely and can be sold or used in new battery materials.” Umeco did not disclose the annual recycling volume, but claimed that they have 7,000 tons. The battery recycling capacity is equivalent to 250 million mobile phone batteries, 2 million electric bicycle batteries or 35,000 electric car batteries.
  Cobalt is a metal that is currently in great demand, and it is also a key material for lithium batteries in smart phones and electric vehicles. From 2016 to 2018, the price of cobalt increased by more than 300%. More than 60% of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the mining of cobalt is inseparable from local child labor and environmental degradation. Therefore, recycling existing batteries can play an important role in the “sustainable supply of cobalt”.
  Hills said that recycling all portable devices scrapped by EU citizens in the past 20 years will yield enough cobalt to produce 10 million electric cars. From one ton of mobile phone batteries, 135 kg to 240 kg of cobalt, 70 kg of copper and 15 kg of lithium can be extracted. Even if the battery is removed, each ton of mobile phone’s own electronic components can provide about 1 kilogram of silver and 235 grams of gold. This is quite advantageous compared to raw ore mining. It should be understood that, on average, each ton of silver ore contains only 100 grams of silver, while gold ore contains only 2 grams to 5 grams of gold.
  Not only are the high-value materials contained in “urban minerals” far superior to traditional minerals, but data from the Norwegian Institute of Technology and Industry shows that the energy required to obtain these metals through urban mining is 17 times less than that of traditional mining methods. Research on discarded TV sets shows that, in terms of gold and copper alone, the cost of urban mining is lower.
  But the above is only a theoretical situation. Horn said: “There is still a long way to go to achieve this goal. First, not all electrical and electronic waste can be recycled. The EU’s current recycling rate is 35%. Second, due to limitations in the treatment method, Not all elements can be extracted. In 2014, the precious metal recovery rate of electrical and electronic waste in Europe was only 1%. “The European Union hopes to increase this ratio, but its goal is only to reach 20% by 2030.
  Another challenge is how to get the “ore” in the city in time. The most valuable parts of those “urban minerals”-various equipment, cables, chargers and transformers, they will not be properly stacked somewhere waiting to be discovered. On the contrary, they are widely distributed and not easily accessible. This recycling is related to complex chemical engineering, community services, and education.
  Anna Martinez, a metal production and processing expert at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology, explained: “At present, only 1/3 of the EU’s electrical and electronic waste is collected separately, properly treated and declared in accordance with the compliance plan. The remaining It will be collected and processed by unregistered companies, but there are still some wastes that cannot be properly treated or even exported illegally.”
  Hills believes that proper recycling is always the key. “Recycling is a collective challenge. The difficulty lies in how to motivate people to hand over those idle electronic devices.” Consumer awareness is an obstacle-people put old devices aside and wait for them to be needed again. And this day will never come.
  A survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry shows that more than half of British households have at least one idle electronic device, and 45% of households have five. Based on this inference, there may be as many as 40 million electronic devices idle in people’s homes. Horn said that the WEEE Forum estimates that the average household in Europe has 248 kilograms of electronic products (obsolete and still in use), including 17 kilograms of batteries.
  Collection points for electrical and electronic waste already exist in the European Union, such as roadside recycling or return to retailers. Martinez said: “But this seems not enough to get people to return to those recyclable waste.” In the United States, because there is no national law to manage e-waste, related issues can only be dealt with by the states. Since California became the first state to formulate e-waste-related regulations in 2003, only 24 states in the United States have followed this approach.
  In addition, there is another way to reduce the extraction of raw materials: use less material. In the waste grading system of “reduction of use-reuse-recycling”, it is easy for us to forget the first two and focus on the latter.
  ”It is not enough to increase recycling.” Horn said, “We need to make progress in many related areas to increase the utilization of raw materials and make them part of the circular economy.” For example, by extending product life, changing people Attitudes towards ownership and consumption, improving the manufacturing and retailing methods of goods, and ensuring the feasibility of repeated use.
  Some plans may seem to be irrelevant to urban mining-for example, the EU’s upcoming “right to repair” requires manufacturers to produce more durable goods and provide spare parts, but this is undoubtedly crucial to the future of “urban mining” effect.
  Sometimes, we also encounter the situation mentioned by Martinez: “Some raw materials are very cheap.” This means that we need to think clearly whether to buy cheap goods that require high ecological and labor costs, or choose to reduce, Reuse and recycle what we already have.
  Now is the best time to rethink our relationship with electronics. Look through the drawers and tidy up the old things in the cabinet. There may be gold there, and recycling them is one of the environmental protection measures that can be done without going out.