August 6, 2021   |   Updated: August 10, 2021

Smartphones and other electronic devices are central to our lives. But when the battery won’t charge anymore, or the screen is cracked, or there’s a better and faster model available, where does that old phone go? 

Discarded electronic devices can pose major environmental hazards. That’s because the precious (and not-so-precious) metals in them can enter waterways and soil after they are thrown away. Sometimes the old electronic devices are simply burned to dispose of them. 

An initiative in Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games brought attention to the need to recycle electronic devices in a really interesting way. 

Organizers collected old electronic devices – mostly smartphones – and recycled them to recover the gold, silver and bronze used for the Olympic medallions. The two-year initiative involved more than 90 percent of the municipalities in Japan, collecting more than 6.2 million cellphones and 78 tons of old monitors, computers and devices. 

The yield for that massive effort? More than 66 pounds of gold, 9,000 pounds of silver and 5,900 pounds of bronze. 

IEEE Impact Creator Tereza Carvalho, whose work focuses on green plastics and e-waste recently, spoke with Brazilian news site G1 about the amazing project. 

“It’s a very small amount of gold and copper [in devices],” she said. “This volume has been gradually decreasing with the advancement of technology because metals are non-renewable resources. So, companies have been developing technology to make connections with the smallest possible quantities.”

Gold and silver each account for 0.3% of the weight of a printed circuit board. That means it takes an incredible number of devices to make a single medal. (And if you are wondering, the gold medals aren’t pure gold. The gold medal is approximately 1.2 pounds of silver with 0.2 ounces of gold plating.)

Across the globe, smartphones are nearly ubiquitous, and in several countries, there are more mobile phone subscriptions than people. Consumers around the world generated 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste in 2019, according to the UN Global E-Waste Monitor. Yet, just 17% of that waste was collected and recycled. The gold, silver, platinum and other precious metals that wasn’t recovered is estimated to be valued at more than US $57 billion. 

E-waste recycling is sometimes referred to as urban mining because it reduces demand for traditionally mined ores that themselves pose environmental challenges. Carvalho sees enormous promise in urban mining, and its ability to support a sustainable, circular economy.

Carvalho said that, despite the minuscule metals content in devices, it’s still less expensive to recycle than to extract new precious metals from the ground. 

“Practical experience has shown that it is more economical to extract the precious metals from electronic waste, such as old and post-consumer smartphones, than from a native mine,” Carvalho said. “In addition, precious metals are not renewable resources, so in the end, our choice will be to recover precious metals from used materials or to replace these metals with others with similar properties.”

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