Uniquely sourced precious metals for Olympic medals

Back in the days of the California Gold Rush, a common saying was “There’s gold in them thar hills!”  Today, it seems, there’s more gold in mountains of electronic trash than in actual gold ore.  The BBC reports:

Around the world there are millions, if not billions, of unused electronic devices in our homes – old mobile phones, neglected games consoles, ancient stereos, outdated computer equipment and defunct printers to name a few. Each of these contains copper, silver and even gold, along with a wide range of valuable rare earth elements.

The key, however, is getting people to get rid of their old devices in a way that means these metals can be extracted, recycled and reused.

. . .

As recycling becomes more “efficient and less expensive and consumers become better informed about correct disposal”, says James Horne, project manager of the WEEE Forum, an EU-funded recycling organisation, so “urban mining becomes a progressively more viable option”.

To get just a taste of what can be achieved, we can look at the medals for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which are now expected to be held in the summer of 2021. Between April 2017 and March 2019, the metal from six million mobile phones and almost 72 million tonnes of waste electronics was extracted from devices donated by people all over Japan to make around 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals.

. . .

Europe is the world’s second highest producer of e-waste, throwing away around 12.3Mt of electronic equipment and batteries a year. Hidden inside is 330,000 tonnes of copper and 31 tonnes of gold. And because older equipment typically contains more of these metals than newer devices, if we were to reclaim all of this, it would be more than enough to manufacture the 14.3Mt of new electronic equipment and batteries that Europeans purchase annually. It is estimated that to produce a year’s worth of new equipment for Europe would require 2.9Mt of plastic, 270,000 tonnes of copper, 3,500 tonnes of cobalt and 26 tonnes of gold.

. . .

It makes the “urban mine” far richer in high value materials per tonne than traditional metal ore mines. And, according to Sintef, the Norwegian research institute, urban mining requires 17 times less energy to retrieve these metals than needed to obtain virgin materials. Research examining discarded television sets in China also showed that large amounts of gold and copper could be obtained at less than the cost of mining the metal from the ground.

There’s more at the link.

It occurs to me that we’re casually exporting millions upon millions of tons of electronic waste every year to countries like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, etc.  We even pay them to take our trash – whereupon they promptly extract all those precious metals and raw materials for their own use, rather than ours.  In effect, what we pay them is a bonus on top of their “urban mining” activities.

Is there a local solution?  I know that the end product – mountains of fragments of electronic trash – must be disposed of somehow.  In the Third World, and in nations with less stringent environmental policies, it’s simply dumped.  Here, with our environmental concerns, that’s a non-starter.  Is there a way to extract this value from our electronic trash, without eating up all the profits in the cost of disposing of the residue?



  1. Seventy Two *million* tons divided by 5000 medals is equal to 14400 *tons* of waste per medal.

    I am an engineer and prodigious user of electronics and probably have orders of magnitude more electronic junk than your average consumer. I even tell all my friends that I am their headquarters for obsolete computer parts. I still have an 5 1/4" floppy drive in my collection. (Hey. You never know.) If I tally it up, I might have a couple hundred pounds of recyclable electronics. That's 28 *millionths* of one medal.

    Sorry, not impressed.

  2. My prediction is there will be bidding wars in the future for the right to mine old landfills for their scrap/trace resources.

    An interesting exercise would be to look at how many tons of copper ore per pound of useful product is extracted today from traditional mines vs the same rating for old-fashioned mixed land fills.

  3. I've been saying for years that you'll know we're short of resources when they start mining landfills.

    Gold is valuable (duh…) so it's worth putting a lot of expense into extracting it compared to something like copper, but because it is so valuable, the typical gold-plated contact only has a few millionths of an inch of gold plating. It takes a lot of PWB fingers and switch contacts to reclaim an ounce of gold.

  4. Reclaiming those metals is a nasty, toxic process. That's why it is generally done overseas, where environmental laws and safety standards are somewhat ….. looser.

  5. 30+ years ago, the club that I was involved in got a bunch of defective relays donated to us (the thought was that we would recycle the copper from the coils) but we found that the relay contacts were gold.

    We ended up with something like 10 ounces of gold at something close to $200 per oz.

    (Never did do anything with the copper IIRC)

    To recycle electronics here in the US you'd have to gut the EPA and their regulations. Otherwise it is a non starter.

  6. We do need to gut in fact eliminate the EPA. The question is then can these items be recycled. Thermodepolymerization uses high heat to break down almost any organic compound into constituent hydro carbons. Garbage / trash in oil and recovered inorganics like metals out. It does need to be set up for particular types of waste but the biggest barrier is Regulation. Tyson was running a plant to recover oil from processing waste. The process to get any new technology approved is tortuous to say the least. Obstructionism is the main unstated purpose of the status quo protecting fed agencies.

  7. Local company is into recycling electronics. They also sell refurbished computers, laptops, phones and what have you. In the center of their "store" is a locked case where they also sell silver and gold. Extracted from recycled electronics. Business is good for them.

  8. Somehow, the economics of this sort of thing never seem to work out.
    Back in Silicon Valley, there used to be (a few years ago) lots of e-waste drop-off centers. But, year-before-last, as I was clearing the junk out of the Sunnyvale house in preparation for the move? No more places to dispose of the old electronics. The ones close to home were closed, and the ones a city or two over, as far as I could tell, never existed in the first place.
    I don't know if the subsidies ran out, or the overseas dumps stopped accepting this stuff, or what.
    Oh, and the city trash/recycling operation silently changed its rule from "anything with a battery or a cord needs to go to (free, unlimited) e-waste recycling" to "unless it's something with a lot of copper we can recover, it has to go in the little tiny household garbage can we still allow you."

  9. Our company contracts with a local electronic recycling service. As we replace customer computers, servers, routers, switches, etc., we bring the old ones back to our office. When we have a large enough pile, the local company comes to collect them, extract the valuable materials, and recycle the rest.

    Given that we manage IT systems for 100+ small businesses, we go through a LOT of old computers.


  10. I'll just pop back in to note that re-use of old electronics is a thing; I've been putting outdated computers (and components thereof) back to work since the early 90s, and still occasionally look for a Deal on a used business computer that was totally out of my price range when it was new a few years ago, but now can be had for sofa change.
    When they finally reach not-worth-repairing status, though, they pretty much become trash; there's not much worth trying to salvage… unless the particular item contains some precious they-don't-make-those-anymore chip needed to repair some ancient piece of mission-critical equipment.

  11. People talk/write of '3D printers' as 'Santa Claus Machines' or they used to. But the very first time I heard of the idea of the 'Santa Claus Machine' is was FAR more advanced:

    Fusion power (so close to 'too cheap to meter'.. yeah, yeah, I know)
    And ALL (or almost all) waste fed into what was, in essence, a giant mass-spectrometer — dissociate all the atoms, sort them. Then feed them to a collection of programm{-able, -ed} nanomachine to assemble said atoms into… whatever you desired.

    Obviously, not nearly there yet.

    "If you can't grow it, you have to mine it." still applies – though the mining is getting a BIT more interesting.

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