Gold and other precious metals are rare. They are typically found in areas where ancient thrust-fault tectonic activity has brought them and other minerals back to the surface of the earth. Then erosion from wind and water bring it down in various deposits where human beings can mine it.
At least, this is how they first enter the cycle for human use. Over the centuries, gold, in particular, has been used in a wide variety of ways, especially in jewelry and coins. In recent years, precious metals like gold and silver have been used in a wide range of consumer electronics. This is largely due to their anti-corrosive properties, malleability, and superior electrical conductivity.
At the same time, platinum and its derivative palladium are used in catalytic converters, electrodes in medical equipment. Palladium is sometimes blended into an alloy with gold to create so-called “White Gold” used in certain types of jewelry.
As the industrial and digital age has continued to go on, a great deal of these precious metals has been used in a lot of the products we use every day. At the current time, mining on an international scale is the primary means for these precious metals to enter the various systems for consumer use.
Yet a growing of innovators and established recycling companies are embracing the concept of precious metal recovery. It’s based on the hope that as the process scales up and grows in demand, that precious metal recovery could become more cost-effective than traditional mining practices.
What Is E-Waste?
E-Waste is a new term being used by a lot of precious metal recovery specialists. It’s largely related to the large volume of consumer electronics that end up being sent to landfills and other disposal methods. These devices like smartphones, old flip phones, scanners, printers, and laptop have a small number of precious metals like gold and silver. Most also have a compliment of semi-precious metals like copper or aluminum.
These days a high number of disposal companies, and municipalities are embracing various forms of reduced or zero landfill initiatives. This includes things like diverting consumer electronics to be recycled rather than simply having them contribute to the growing problem with solid waste and toxic scrap. Incorporating semi-precious and precious metal recycling methods into the process can with cost efficiency, while also helping to lower market demand for sourcing mined metals.
Studies estimate that approximately 4.4 million tons of used electronic devices are recycled each year. When processed correctly they can provide additional resources for the market without having to rely on the extraction of virgin material.
A study published by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has stated that 1 ton of used consumer electronics that has been properly recycled can yield as much gold as you would find in 17 tons of raw ore. Taking this into account it means that with certain electronic devices, the concentration of gold and silver can potentially be as much as 40 to 50 times higher than the average naturally occurring deposits.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that this study primarily looked at gold, and secondarily looked at silver in consumer electronics. It didn’t specifically include the value of semi-precious metals like aluminum and copper or look into things like commercial electronics recycling, or things like recycling platinum and palladium from things like automotive components.
How Common Is Precious Metals Recovery?
Around the world, there are a few disposal and recycling companies who are well aware of the promise of precious metals recycling from consumer electronics, automotive parts, and other electrical components. There are various processes that can be used. In the so-called “First-World” precious metals and semi-precious metal recovery techniques are more efficient than what you typically find in developing nations.
On a global scale, the current recovery rates for e-waste recycling and precious metals recover is relatively small. Current estimates on a global scale are hard to assess. In the United States precious metal recovery processes currently in use yield an estimated 10-to-15% of total possible volume. The remaining 85-to-90% is lost to landfills and other disposal methods.
One major factor in these low recovery amounts is a lack of easy and effective collection. While some disposal companies and communities provide outlets for consumers to donate their electronics, most simply choose to damage the electronic device and deposit it in a garbage receptacle like a dumpster.
In the automotive industry and commercial electronics, the amount of precious metals that are recovered is typically higher. Each year an estimated average of 1.38 million ounces of platinum are recycled from automotive components on a global scale. Additionally, another 36 thousand ounces of platinum is recovered from the electrical industry. It’s also worth noting that a little over 600,000 ounces also come from recycled jewelry.
These numbers are considerably higher than other precious metals, largely due to automotive as well as commercial electronic recyclers having active policies and processes in place to encourage platinum recycling.
What Can We Do To Promote Precious Metal Recovery And Recycling?
There are certain countries, like China that have policies and incentives in place to encourage precious and semi-precious metal recycling. As a result, they are one of the world leaders in the field. This further helps to reduce their production costs.
In the United States and some other first world countries, there is a notable lack of policies and incentives in place to encourage precious metal recovery practices. There are even some current policies that discourage it.
This includes some statues that essentially prevent the export of E-Waste recovered metals to countries that will use them in their own industries. However, as more-and-more awareness of the benefits of precious metal recovery enters the cultural consciousness, there are proposals and niche industries that continue to gain political traction.
Growth in the precious metals recovery industry is likely to come from established waste disposal and recycling companies. Yet there are some innovators around the world who are working on companies specifically designed to focus on precious metal and semi-precious metal recycling. Some of which state that they could be fully operational within the next five to ten years.
While large-scale policy change promoting precious metal recycling in the United States is likely to take time, there are things that can be done at the local level. Simple practices like scrap metal and E-Waste drives can help improve collection rates. Making yourself aware of other scrap metal and precious metal processing dealers can also help if you have old jewelry or a vehicle due to be recycled.