Gadgets that we throw away, like cell phones and computers, are a rich source of precious metals.
A record 53.6 million tonnes of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, according to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020. The raw materials in this e-waste were worth around $57 billion - with iron, copper, and gold contributing most to this value. But only a sixth of that value ($10 billion) is recovered in an environmentally sound way.
What if more of this precious waste could be sustainably salvaged and recycled back into the economy? This is the vision of New Zealand start-up Mint Innovation, which has developed a low-cost, biotech process for recovering valuable metals from e-waste.
“Imagine the gold in your old laptop might end up as a ring on a person’s finger – or being reused in new devices,” says Mint Innovation chief executive Will Barker.
Using naturally sourced microbes and inexpensive chemicals, the company recovers precious metals from crushed and powdered electronic waste. A mobile phone, for example, is made up of 15 percent copper and other compounds, 10 percent other metals and 3 percent iron, according to the World Economic Forum’s report, A New Circular Vision for Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot.
“Globally, society only deals with 20 percent of e-waste appropriately and there is little data on what happens to the rest, which for the most part ends up in landfill, or is disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions,” the Forum says.
Mint’s vision is to have a biorefinery in every major city in the world. It has just raised NZ$20 million ($14 million) to help build its first two biorefineries in Sydney, Australia and North West England. The Sydney plant will be able to process up to 3,500 tonnes of electronic waste a year.
“Ideally those metals will be sold back to local businesses, such as jewellers and manufacturers, creating a truly circular economy,” Barker says.
Better product tracking and buy-back or return systems could lead to global circular value chains. Material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and increasing the use and quality of recycled materials are key.