Mining the Gold in Your Cell Phones

Fact: More gold can be recycled from one metric ton of used cell phones than can be refined from 17 tons of gold ores.

Seventeen metric tons of gold ores will yield approximately.51 to 85 grams of gold – that’s 0.3 to 5 grams of gold per metric ton – depending on the location of the mine. In comparison, a ton of obsolete phones can yield as much as 280 grams of gold, about 140 grams of platinum and palladium, and 140 kilograms of copper. Other materials like glass and plastic can also be recycled from the same ton of discarded phones. Throwing an old cell phone to the landfill is basically throwing money down the drain.

The Destructiveness of Gold Mining

Gold mining and refining requires a huge amount of energy and will create by-products that have devastating impact on the environment. The production of one gold ring is said to generate as much as 20 tons of wastes. Toxic heavy metals like mercury and cyanide are also being used extensively in the gold mining and refining process – creating waste that are dangerous to the environment and the surrounding communities. Gold mining creates an indelible scar on the land, ravaging pristine rainforests, and destroying habitats and ecological niches.

Given the disparity between the amount of gold produced and rate of destruction that gold mining entails, it makes sense that we should conserve, recycle, and keep in the production cycle the gold that we already have. This is where gold recycling and, by association, mobile phone recycling come into the picture.

Surface Mining For Gold in Cell Phones

At the moment, recycling precious metals from used cell phones is done on an industrial scale. In Belgium, for example, there is a company called Umicore which process huge amounts of obsolete cell phones and other electronic wastes shipped to them from all over the world. They call the process of extracting gold, silver, platinum, copper, coltan, plastic, and glass from these mountainous piles of old cell phones “surface mining.”

At the end of the process, when all the metals and other reusable materials have been separated, approximately less than half of 1% of the electronic waste remains. This by-product can not be reintroduced into the production stream and is then burned for electricity generation.

Urban mining, anyone?

Some enthusiasts fancy themselves as “urban miners” – collecting old cell phones from friends and neighbors – and doing the recycling process piece by tedious piece,themselves, primarily for the gold found in these old units. It’s become some kind of a hobby for quite a few people, but even if you know what you’re doing, it might not be a good idea to start an urban mining business. The amount of gold you get after a long while is simply not commensurate with the time it takes and the risk of getting poisoned by the industrial chemicals involved, not to mention that at the end of the process, you’ll still be hauling a good amount of debris to the landfill. The giant recyclers turn a profit by processing tons and tons of old phones all at the same time, while making use of practically all materials found in each discarded cell phone.

Cell Phone Recycling: The Win-Win Proposition

In a few years, the metals used in cell phones like gold, copper, coltan, and platinum will be exhausted. These are finite resources after all, and at the rate we’re mining them from the bowels of the earth, the deposits will soon run dry. Cellular phone recycling, which enables us to keep as much of these metals circulating within the manufacturing cycle – instead of rotting in the landfills – is an excellent conservation option. And, as we learned about the destructive impact of gold mining on the environment, recycling clearly provides a way to lessen the demand for fresh raw materials, thus protecting the environment, over the long term.

Cell Phone recycling, truly, is a win-win proposition for everyone concerned. The industrial recyclers profit from selling the recycled metals to manufacturers. Cellular phone makers are assured of a reliable supply chain of raw materials for years, stabilizing production costs. Finally, all of us win by having modern electronic products affordable and within our reach and because recycling helps protect the planet we all live in.

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