Gold mining in the city

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Gold mining in the city

Christopher Kaminker, PhD - Head of Sustainable Investment Research & Strategy<br/>Lombard Odier Investment Managers

Christopher Kaminker, PhD

Head of Sustainable Investment Research & Strategy
Lombard Odier Investment Managers

Article published in the March 2020 edition of MEED magazine 

Computers, mobile phones and other electronic products use a staggering 320 tonnes of gold and more than 7,500 tonnes of silver every year, according to the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI). With the decreasing lifespan of electrical devices as technology advances faster than ever, a new industry has emerged called urban mining that aims to recycle some of the estimated $62.5bn-worth of electronic waste generated each year – about three times the value of the world’s annual silver production.

But beyond the business prospects in this industry, the rise of urban mining offers an example of how circular economies can replace linear ones to transform not only the way we consume but also the negative impact that our consumption has on the planet.

Urban mining aims to recycle some of the estimated $62.5bn-worth of electronic waste generated each year – about three times the value of the world’s annual silver production.

E-waste is a surprisingly rich alternative to traditional mining – just one tonne of e-waste contains more gold than 17 tonnes of ore – and is achieving rapid cost reductions through improvement of technologies, collection systems and growing economies of scale. As many as 17 different metals can be extracted from e-waste, including silver, platinum, copper, tin and antimony. There is also plenty of it.

UAE e-waste

The UAE is among the highest producers of e-waste due to its high per capita income and easy access to the latest technological trends. It is estimated that each UAE citizen generates an average of 17.2 kilograms of e-waste annually, with a total country-wide generation of about 101,000 tonnes. For decades, industrialised countries have disposed of huge quantities of e-waste by exporting it to developing regions such as West Africa. Agbogbloshie in Ghana used to be an area of wildlife and natural beauty. Today, it is the world’s largest dump site for used electronic goods from Europe and beyond. Impoverished families work in toxic and hazardous conditions to recycle e-waste materials manually, which is inefficient and often dangerous.

The UAE is among the highest producers of e-waste due to its high per capita income and easy access to the latest technological trends.

Urban mining heralds the prospect of recycling much more e-waste in consumer countries, cutting down on traditional transportation, which contributes to global warming. It can also recover greater quantities of metals and other materials from e-waste than the predominantly manual recycling process carried out in Africa, India and other developing regions. Most importantly, urban mining can help reduce the amount of traditional mining activity in the world, an increasing amount of which is carried out in environmentally sensitive areas, with mining companies having to dig ever deeper to extract raw materials.


Circular economy

There are encouraging signs of progress towards a more defined circular economy for electronics in the UAE. The UAE National Agenda includes an ambitious target of diverting 75 per cent of all municipal solid waste away from landfills by 2021.

In 2019, Dubai launched the world’s largest e-waste recycling facility. The 26,000 square metre plant has a processing capacity of 100,000 tonnes of total integrated waste a year, of which 39,000 tonnes is e-waste. In addition to the strong push by the government, the private sector in the UAE is also playing a role in the management of e-waste with the establishment of several electronic recycling companies.

The rise of urban mining offers an example of how circular economies can replace linear ones to transform not only the way we consume but also the negative impact that our consumption has on the planet.

Around the world, the EU’s revised framework on waste targets a 65 per cent reduction in municipal waste by 2035, building on previous directives aimed at waste electronic equipment.

At the company level, initiatives are in full swing. Volkswagen is building a battery recycling plant that will support the car maker’s goal of recycling 97 per cent of raw materials in end-of-life electric vehicle battery packs – up from 53 per cent today. Apple, meanwhile, has a goal of making all of its products from recycled materials. The California technology company has even piloted robotic tools to help disassemble iPhones.

With more effort, urban mining could become a win-win: benefiting consumers and producers while simultaneously making sure our planet does not become a landfill of hazardous waste.

Despite the increasing recognition of the significance of e-waste, more needs to be done, however. Many countries lack any kind of legislation to deal with e-waste. And even with regulations covering the export of e-waste, the EU sees an estimated 1.3 million tonnes of e-waste exported illegally every year. Meanwhile, consumers must become more aware of the need to recycle their e-waste in a responsible way.

A report last year by the World Economic Forum noted that a circular economy for electronics could reduce the costs to consumers by 7 per cent by 2030, and 14 per cent by 2040. With more effort, urban mining could become a win-win: benefiting consumers and producers while simultaneously making sure our planet does not become a landfill of hazardous waste.

Wichtige Hinweise.

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