Gadgets that we throw away, like cell phones and computers, are a rich source of precious metals.
A record 53.6 million tonnes of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, according to the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor 2020. The raw materials in this e-waste were worth around $57 billion – with iron, copper, and gold contributing most to this value. But only a sixth of that value ($10 billion) is recovered in an environmentally sound way.
What if more of this precious waste could be sustainably salvaged and recycled back into the economy?
This is the vision of New Zealand start-up Mint Innovation, which has developed a low-cost, biotech process for recovering valuable metals from e-waste.
“Imagine the gold in your old laptop might end up as a ring on a person’s finger – or being reused in new devices,” says Mint Innovation chief executive Will Barker.
Using naturally sourced microbes and inexpensive chemicals, the company recovers precious metals from crushed and powdered electronic waste.
A mobile phone, for example, is made up of 15% copper and other compounds, 10% other metals and 3% iron, according to the World Economic Forum’s report, A New Circular Vision for Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot.
Mint’s vision is to have a biorefinery in every major city in the world. It has just raised NZ$20 million ($14 million) to help build its first two biorefineries in Sydney, Australia and North West England. The Sydney plant will be able to process up to 3,500 tonnes of electronic waste a year.
“Ideally those metals will be sold back to local businesses, such as jewellers and manufacturers, creating a truly circular economy,” Barker says.
Mint Innovation is one of 17 companies selected from more than 200 entrants to be part of The Circulars Accelerator Cohort 2021. The six-month programme helps circular innovators scale their solutions by connecting them to industry leaders and circular experts for tailored support and mentorship.
The accelerator is a collaboration with UpLink, the World Economic Forum’s innovation crowdsourcing platform, and is led by professional services company Accenture in partnership with Anglo American, Ecolab, and Schneider Electric.
The partners say the circular economy presents a unique market opportunity worth upwards of $4.5 trillion by 2030.
By 2020, the number of devices connected to the internet was forecast to have been between 25 to 50 billion, according to the Forum’s A New Circular Vision for Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot, published in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated digital uptake.
It also estimated that, by 2040, carbon emissions from the production and use of electronics, including devices like PCs, laptops, monitors, smartphones and tablets (and their production) will reach 14% of total emissions.
“Globally, society only deals with 20% of e-waste appropriately and there is little data on what happens to the rest, which for the most part ends up in landfill, or is disposed of by informal workers in poor conditions,” the Forum says.
Changes in technology such as cloud computing and the internet of things – the world of connected devices – could hold the potential to “dematerialize” the electronics industry, the report finds.
Better product tracking and buy-back or return systems could lead to global circular value chains. Material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and increasing the use and quality of recycled materials are key.
This article was originally published in the World Economic Forum.