Mining E-Waste

Our latest update looks at the potential value of the e-waste recycling market and at the challenges nanoscale ICT poses to realizing that potential.


Lenny Koh of the Advanced Resource Efficiency Centre at The University of Sheffield (UK) created estimates for the European market. "The potential revenue from the recyclingof e-waste is 2.15 billion Euros and it’s projected to grow significantly. By 2020, the market for recycling of e-waste will grow to 3.67 billion Euros." This number seems low compared to the worldwide estimate cited below, but this just illustrates how difficult it is to project these emerging sectors.

Will it be easy to realize this potential? "One of the biggest challenges we come across in dealing withe-waste and circular economy is that the design of products is increasingly sophisticated, smaller, more compact on a nanoscale. This increases the complexity in recovering precious, rare earth materials. Technological development in this area is important in order to make sure we’ll be able todeal with complicated products and nanoscale materials we have to uncover, andthe recycling plants to have flexibility to cope with multi waste streams."

See Vertatique's count of the over 24 billion pieces of edge gear attached to our global ICT infrastructure and learn how many materials in our e-gear play central roles in the problems of conflict minerals and resource insecurity.


A October 2013 UNEP press release states the e-waste/ore ratio more conservatively: " tonne of recycled electronic waste could yield as much gold as five to 15 tonnes of typical gold ore." Either number represents a significant opportunity.

Noting that the "United Nations Environment Program [UNEP]suggests that one metric ton of e-waste from personal computers contains more gold than that recovered from 17 metric tons of gold ore," GBI Research forecast in 2013 that the "the global e-waste recovery market across all anticipated [to] reach $44.3 billion in 2020."


Specialty metals recycler Umicore uses grams per tonne of gold to illustrate the potential for urban mining of e-waste.

Ore PC Circuit Boards Cell Phones
~5 g/t Au 200-250 g/t Au 300-350 g/t Au

Umicore's 2010 presentation also shows the amount of silver, gold, palladium, and copper in the annual global production of cell phones and PCs, as well as the cobalt in their lithium-ion batteries. For example, Unicore puts the palladium for a year's production of these devices at 36 tonnes, consuming ~16% of all palladium mined.

Jack Lifton of Technology Metals Research wrote back in 2008, "When the production of the base metals zinc, aluminum, and copper is reduced due to a slowdown in the world's economy the supply of new cadmium, germanium, indium, gallium, selenium, tellurium, molybdenum, and rhenium is also reduced…If the recession goes on long enough so that stocks of the critical minor metals run out, because of reduced or nonproduction of their base metal carriers there will be a panic and recycling from the currently uneconomical low concentrations of these 'technology-critical' minor metals in trash and personal electronics scrap may become necessary." Are we at that point, yet?