From your water-logged phone to your smashed smart TV, those personal electronics headed for the landfill are a potential goldmine. Or copper mine. Or—some day—a lithium mine.
Economists already knew that along with the swelling 44.7 million metric tons of electronic waste tossed each year we were throwing out billions of dollars in resources. But quantifying all the gold, copper, iron, plastic, and rare earths languishing in our landfills and recycling centers is only part of the problem. Figuring out whether it’s worthwhile, financially speaking, to sift those resources out of the rubble—instead of continuing to extract them from traditional mines—is another issue entirely.
A study published in Environmental Science & Technology this week finally has an answer, suggesting that ‘urban mining’ of electronic waste for copper and gold in China was actually more cost-effective than digging those metals out of the ground.
“Most articles on waste-disposal frame the issue as a moral dilemma: how to enjoy more gadgets without drowning in waste. We reframe the issue in our article is one of economics—how to comprehend that technologies now exist allowing companies to profitably extract valuable material from growing waste streams,” says study co-author John Matthews. In China, he says, this is called the “circular economy.” And he and his colleagues believe it’s the only real solution to the mounting problems posed by e-waste disposal.
Read More: Popular Science