If you've no account register here first time
User Name :
User Email :
Password :

Login Now

Urban Mining: The New Frontier

In six short years, I’ve watched as the products coming into our electronics recycling business have grown to include not just computers and televisions, but now a wide range of products we never envisioned, but now can’t imagine living without – Kindles and iPads, iPhones and mp3 players, and countless other devices.

By next year, every one of these innovative products will likely be obsolete – people will be buying new versions of their tablets, laptops, smart phones and flat-screen televisions. The question becomes: where will the old stuff end up and what will happen to it?

The answer regarding what to do with the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world today, e-waste, is not a simple one, but there is a viable solution – “Urban Mining.”

When most people learn about the toxic elements contained in cell phones, computers and televisions, they want to do the right thing in terms of having them properly recycled and not dumped into landfills.  Sensitive personal information can also be extracted from old devices, so it is very important as part of the recycling process that we make sure that we properly destroy technologies that store personal information.

When it comes to consumer electronics, perhaps the most important thing we can do is keep this stuff above ground, and then get it appropriately to smelters.  That’s where the concept of urban mining comes in.

Imagine a fleet of miners flocking to landfills and disassembling the dated electronics for their batteries and power supplies.  Urban mining is a term I like to use to describe this process – and the budding global industry that encompasses essentially anything that’s recyclable.  Urban mining goes beyond electronics, too.  It’s everything that goes into a landfill that can be taken out and used.

Electronics are certainly a key element, however, especially since many contain precious metals like platinum, iridium and others that could have dramatic implications for energy independence and renewable energy in the United States. Many of the most valuable metals used in everyday electronic products are mined outside U.S. borders – China alone accounts for 97 percent of the rare earth metal market.

For a few years now, electronic recycling has been prompted by forward-thinking state laws seeking to prevent “e-waste,” or electronics that end up in landfills. California was first to pass e-waste legislation in 2003. The state has processed more than 1 billion pounds of e-waste since then and has 60 recyclers and 600 collectors.

Twenty-four other states have since followed suit, mostly in the past few years, but California’s law stands out because it charges a consumer fee on certain electronics. The fee goes on covered electronic devices, or any electronic item with a screen bigger than 4 inches. Buying a big-screen TV, for instance, may require a $10 fee that gets diverted into a recycling fund. The fund goes back to recyclers and collectors, who are paid a subsidy based on the amount of electronics they bring to a recycling plant. Collectors typically get about 30 cents per pound of e-waste.

Other states with e-waste laws take “producer responsibility” approaches and shift the burden of recycling costs from the taxpayers to the manufacturers. Manufacturers are pushed to make products that can be easily recycled or made from recyclable materials. The catch is, they have to pay for it themselves.

But despite e-recycling’s growth, most old electronics in the United States still end up in landfills.  US EPA estimates that in 2009, more than 82 percent of discarded electronics went to landfills and incinerators. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition, which promotes responsible e-recycling, says 50 to 80 percent of electronics recycled in the United States are shipped overseas, and that is probably a conservative estimate.

Most people don’t recognize the value in their discarded electronics. Cell phones, for example.  You may have an old one in your pocket right now that you’ve been thinking of replacing.  Who would possibly want your crummy old cell phone, right?  It’s actually very likely that there is someone out there who really would like to buy your phone — not to sign-up to a cheap call plan, but to strip it of the valuable materials used to build it, from iridium and indium to antimony and bismuth.

For the urban miner, it doesn’t matter whether your device is working or broken, new or old — what is at stake is mineral content, both rare earth metals and other elements like copper, iron, manganese, nickel, palladium, platinum, tin and zinc.

After the devices are processed and the materials separated, these valuable metals can be sold as high quality raw materials used to build new products, which in turn might someday be recycled. Manufacturers are beginning to recognize this, and are making commitments to purchase raw materials for their new products mined not from the earth, but from recycling collection points throughout our cities.

With our landfills reaching capacity, and the costs of mining and shipping rare earth metals increasing, there’ no better time to complete the electronics cycle and begin urban mining!

John Shegerian is Chairman & CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) and Founder of 1-800-Recycling.com.

John Shegerian
John Shegerian is Chairman & CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI) and Founder of 1-800-Recycling.com.
 
Financing Environmental Resiliency and a Low-Carbon Future with Green Bonds
Sponsored By: NSF International

  
6 Things to Consider When Deciding Whether to Build or Buy Software
Sponsored By: Progressly

  
The Corporate Sustainability Professional's Guide to Better Data Management
Sponsored By: Urjanet

  
Environmental Leader Product and Project Awards 2017
Sponsored By: Environmental Leader

  

6 thoughts on “Urban Mining: The New Frontier

  1. John, it is most impressive how far recycling has come.It is it fair to call 12 month old Electronics “Stuff”? This implies that electronics are not Re-Useable when in fact reuse is perhaps the best enviornmental option. Inovative products can continue to invoate those who do not have access. “For the urban miner, it doesn’t matter whether your device is working or broken, new or old”
    If it does not matter to the Urban Miner than we should make sure there is a step before reusable electronics are harvested for a few ounces of material.
    It seems that the consumer should play a roll here as well, if we could recall the excitment we felt when we first purchased our electronics we might relate to how it

  2. Urban recycling makes so much sense. Where possible, recyclable materials should be processed and reused as close to the collection point as possible. Nowadays, that means dense urban centers.

    Urban recycling is not just a trend in electronics but also in paper. A few domestic recycled paper manufacturers have built modern mills in urban centers, close to their waste paper supply. A paragon of this is FutureMark Paper Co. (www.futuremarkpaper.com), which makes coated publication paper for magazines and catalogs out of 90% recycled paper.

    The urban recycling approach creates substantial benefits, environmentally and economically. It ensures the local communities doing the recycling also benefit from the manufacturing jobs, economic activity and conserved resources inherent in the local reuse of recyclable materials.

  3. Mr.Shegerian, your article sheds real light on the shift in our culture towards recycling. Today, consumers recycle for cash or for environmental responsibility. At uSell.com- we specialize in finding the highest cash offers from top-rated buyers for electronics and other consumer goods- the trend we have seen is consumers upgrading their gadgets based on the cash value they receive from their current technology. I don’t expect this trend to change.

  4. Thanks John. Great article. Any idea how many business and jobs have been created in the six years you cite? You are of course echoing the Cradle to Cradle® principle of returning technical nutrients to the technical metabolism. And while it’s great that more manufacturers are using “urban mined” resources, the bigger opportunity is for device manufacturers to conscientiously design their products for easy separation and reclamation of these precious resources. Aiding this transformation is precisely mission of the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute, with material reuse being one of the five pillars of the transformed industrial system we are working to bring about.

  5. Thanks John,
    I recently saw some pieces on shows like CNN and the journal with Joan Lunden on PBS that were talking about issues and solutions for industrial recycling. This is an interesting twist that could really become a game changer in the future. Whoever gets in at the beginning of the urban mining will possibly be a part of a new gold rush of sorts. I hope we start implementing such programs early on to reduce our dependence.

  6. Mr. Shegerian,
    I am a newly retired person that is looking around for something to do. I am interested in recycling e-waste, but…

    For the last two months I have researched the possibilities but have run into a roadblock, how to information, can’t find any. Their are several of us old guys out here that would be interested but how do you get started, nobody can tell me.

    I believe because of my problem obtaining information a lot of other people are walking away from e-waste and looking for something else to do.

    Any advice,, can you point me in a direction to get started??

    Thank you,

    Robert Smith
    Port Hueneme Ca.

Leave a Comment