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Electronics Recycling and the Big Business of Urban Mining

I recently – belatedly perhaps! – made the switch from a Blackberry to a Windows phone. It was a choice driven by practicality rather than functionality, meaning I now have a perfectly working but totally redundant piece of sophisticated technology on my hands. This prompted me to check in with my staff and ask what they do with their devices once they move on or upgrade. The answer, by and large, was “very little.”   One staff member reeled off a list of 2 laptops, 1 first generation iPad and 3 mobile phones that are currently languishing in a closet in her apartment, out of sight and out of mind, to be dealt with at some unknown later point. This may seem quite the laundry list but as I asked around my wider circle, it didn’t seem so unusual – only a few people said they recycled old devices.

This is clearly tremendously wasteful on many levels. According to the Global eSustainability initiative (GeSI), 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver are used to make computers, cell phones, tablets and other electronic products every year. So it stands to reason that recycling can have a huge impact, and the numbers bear that out. It’s also huge business – as there’s gold in them thar closets, quite literally! According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in a year and for every million cellphones that are recycled, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered,  making sustainability experts call for e-waste to be managed as a resource. 

This has spawned a whole new industry which has picked up speed in the last few years called ‘urban mining,’ which again, according to the GeSI is potentially worth billions. And it makes good sense as ‘urban mining’ deposits are 40 to 50 times richer than mined ore. But this is not an industry one can reap the rewards of overnight. In a fascinating interview with the UK’s Guardian, Marc Grynberg, the CEO of cleantech company Umicore shares his insights into how a long-term mindset is crucial to success in this field. And, on a topic so dear to my heart, he speaks to the need for sustainability to be “seen as a source of differentiation and competitive advantage rather than as a burden.” It really is time, if we want to affect positive change, to revise our view of what is waste, what is a perceived problem, and instead look to the opportunity.

So this Easter weekend before next Tuesday’s Earth Day, we at ARTÉMIA have all made the commitment to donate or recycle our redundant devices, to encourage our friends and family to do the same as part of our small contribution to the greater sustainable good.

If you want to clear some closet space and get rid of your e-waste, you can find out how on the EPA website here. If you happen to be in San Francisco, the San Francisco Department of Environment has a great resource here.

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