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The Forgotten Goldmine In Your Closet – The Time For Urban Mining?

A few weekends ago, I decided to have a bit of a tidy-up in my den.

It wasn’t long before I had filled up a couple of black bin bags, and had also got a reasonable sized crate of bits and pieces for the charity shop.

I had taken a long and hard look at my bookshelves.

I make no apology for being a bibliophile. I have a great love of books, probably imparted to me by my parents.

My father, in the main, was the greater reader in the family, as my dear old Mum was usually far too busy feeding us, cooking, cleaning, washing and keeping house to have time for more than a glance at her regular copies of Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Weekly.

I will happily read anything – Crime, Thrillers, Sci-fi, Autobiographies, and even the back of the cereal packet!

I have had a lifelong interest in aerospace and aviation, and have studied at and subsequently lectured at technical colleges.

When I decided to undertake my Master’s Degree in Air Safety Management, I needed to invest in a large number of text books, covering diverse subject areas that included airline economics, flight safety, aviation psychology, human factors, quality assurance, human resources – even airline marketing.

Just a small selection

These books were very useful during the course and cost a small fortune, but they are now somewhat redundant. They take up at least three shelves in my bookcase.

If I were to act rationally, I should have put the whole collection up on eBay, and got rid of them, but somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to do this.

So, they still sit there on the shelves, with a page not turned since 2007, when I graduated.

I did, however, find two old laptop computers, which were retired years ago – one of which was running Windows 98 and the other loaded with Windows XP – that’s assuming that they still worked!

What a waste…

Other things in my sweep were four old cell phones, (without chargers) an inoperative digital clock, and an old hard-wired HP printer.

I knew that the electronic items were useless, and couldn’t be eBayed, so they should be destined for the local recycling centre.

Disposing of electronic equipment is global problem, and one that won’t go away any day soon.

Just over a week ago, we “celebrated” International e-Waste Day.

So, what is e-waste?

To put it simply, e-waste is any piece of electronic or electrical equipment that has been discarded.

That’s quite a far-reaching statement.

e-waste includes large electrical items such as Refrigerators, Freezers, washing machines, tumble driers, cookers, air conditioning units etc. It also includes smaller electrical equipment such as microwave ovens, TVs, computer monitors, printers, computers, laptops etc. Lastly, smaller items such as mobile phones, tablets, calculators.

e-waste… Piles of it! Image credit Avwijk, Public Domain

In a nutshell, anything that operates using electricity!

This list is predominantly domestic equipment, but industry also generates e-waste, but that is a subject for another day.

e-Waste is an alarming and growing problem and in 2021, it is predicted that 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste will be generated.

To put that into context, the Great Wall of China is the world’s largest artificial object, and 57.4 million tonnes is heavier than that!

The Great Wall of China at sunrise. Image Credit Hua Wei under CCA 2.0

Between 2014 and 2019, the amount of e-waste increased by 21%, and if this rate continues, we are looking at over 70 million tonnes of it per annum by 2030!

This increase works out at about 4% per year, about 2 million tonnes!

Growth in the ownership of electronic equipment (probably influenced by a reduction in prices, shorter life expectancies and limited repair options) is around 3% per annum.

It was estimated that in Europe, 15% of electronic items in a household would be either redundant or unserviceable. I’m not sure that figure is totally accurate in my home.

A further study conducted by the French, estimated that there between 54 and 113 million mobile phones stashed away in French boudoirs – that’s between 10 and 20 tonnes worth!

In the good ole’ US of A, they toss out 416,000 phones PER DAY.

That’s an inexcusable 151 million per year! Almost all of these are destined for either landfill or incineration.

Over 40% of the heavy metals found in US landfill sites come from waste electronic devices.

Many of the heavy metals are known to be toxic, such as nickel, cobalt, chromium, lead, copper, zinc and silver. Most of these may be found in electronic devices.

151 million mobile phones! If all these discarded devices were to be broken down, and the materials recovered, here is how it would pan out.

3.6 tonnes of gold
2416 tonnes of copper
52.9 tonnes of silver
2.2 tonnes of Palladium

These are just the more precious metals, there are probably many other materials that may be recoverable.

Now, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or an Albert Einstein to recognise that recovering these precious metals saves a huge amount of CO2 being emitted, compared to mining for them.

To put it into perspective, a tonne of discarded mobile phones contains more gold than a tonne of gold ore!

Scrapped mobile phones. Image credit MikroLogika under CCA SA 3.0

Here’s a mind-blowing figure for you to consider.

In 2019, the amount of high-value recoverable materials that developing nations (those without legal environmental restrictions in place) dumped or burned, amounts to US$ 57 billion1 (a conservative figure!).

This is more than the Gross Domestic Product of several countries.

Many people are aware that they should be recycling as much stuff as they can, but most of us severely over-estimate how much we recycle. A recent piece of research showed that as a society, we estimate that we recycle 40-50% of electronic waste.

In reality, it’s a paltry 17.4%!

Now, I know from a personal perspective, that one of the things that puts up a barrier to me recycling my old electronic equipment is that of my personal data security. My last four phones have all been “smart” phones, and they probably contain a large amount of personal data.

They are all still sitting forlornly in my desk drawer.

Even if one removes the sim card, and resets the phone, there is still an uncomfortable feeling that maybe, just maybe, there is still something in there which could be sensitive.

I have visited the Apple website and know how to totally delete all data from an iPhone.

Now, rather than letting them just be sophisticated paper-weights, I will be able to send them off to either be recycled, or to be sent to a developing nation in order that somebody in the world may benefit from useable technology that I no longer need.

So, maybe it’s time for you all to have a sort through your drawers and cupboards. Retrieve that old laptop or ten-year-old desktop computer. Maybe you have an old monitor in the loft?

Have a rummage – I’m sure you may well find old mobile phones, chargers, old iPads.

If you do, there are a many sites that will recycle them, such as musicMagpie, Compare and Recycle, or you could drop them into a high street charity shop, as they may have arrangements to make some cash on recycling old donated phones.

If you are successful, please comment and let me know how you get on!

Go Well…

Note 1 – Kees Baldé, Senior Programme Officer of the UN University’s SCYCLE Programme

By The Flying Wordsmith

A highly qualified aviation professional who is able to write cogent and professional articles on a wide variety of subjects. Also interested in general articles covering travel, politics, social commentary and prose. Poetry and Lyrics also an interest.

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