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Will we mine our urban e-waste for gold?

A short overview of the value of e-waste, the potential for recovering gold from e-waste, and the future of urban mining.


Recovering value from e-waste

According to a UN report from 2019, the e-waste produced annually is worth over USD 62.5 billion. E-waste “often contain[s] large amounts of gold and other heavy metals”. It contains precious metals – such as silver, copper, platinum, and palladium. Iron, copper, aluminum, and cobalt are also found in larger amounts in e-waste.

E-waste is “a huge sleeping resource”. Only around 17.4% of the e-waste produced globally in 2019 was processed formally. This is largely because there is not a significant monetary incentive to ensure that a greater percentage would be recycled formally. The cost for the formal recycling of e-waste is often higher than for informal recycling – and often also higher than the cost for the primary extraction of minerals needed to produce electronic and electrical products.

Yet notably, e-waste contains the materials needed for “strategic sectors such as renewable energy, electric mobility, industry, communications, aerospace and defense”. With, for example, the demand for copper being anticipated “to rise 6 fold by 2030 in Europe”, the value of e-waste is likely to increase considerably over the coming years. The valuable materials found in e-waste are, however, not particularly easy to collect. Therefore, working to create cheaper and easier processes for the urban mining and formal recycling of e-waste is one way to tackle the increasing global e-waste production and the mineral needs of the energy transition.


The potential for urban mining

Urban mining is the process of reclaiming materials from urban waste. A common form of urban mining involves recovering metals and minerals from e-waste. There is currently a significant gap between the amount of raw materials found in urban waste and the potential amount of raw materials that could be recovered through urban mining. Most urban mining today involves melting down devices in a furnace and focuses on extracting only the most valuable metals – such as copper, silver, and gold. It is not uncommon to recycle only 10% of the material and discard the rest on landfills.

Landfills may now have higher concentrations of certain raw materials than the mines in conventional mining. By recovering value and reinserting it into the supply chain, urban mining can play a key role in achieving a circular economy and meeting the increased demand for resources for electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies. Amongst others, urban mining can have economic, environmental, and humanitarian benefits. In some cases, urban mining can be equally or more cost-efficient than traditional mining. By increasing urban mining, countries “can limit their dependence on foreign minerals, reduce carbon output in industrial production [and transport of raw materials], fortify recycling supply chains, and provide economic opportunities in the e-waste management sector”. On the whole, urban mining “reduces the strain on natural resource reserves”, as well as the need for deep-sea and conflict minerals. It can also alleviate the demand for water supplies in water-scarce areas, where virgin mining often occurs.

The lack of (access to) advanced technology and technical knowledge, particularly among developing countries, is considered a large barrier to urban mining. Urban mining may also be financially unattractive, due to high labor costs or the availability of cheap virgin materials. While formal (and adequately regulated) urban mining typically has a lower environmental impact than mining for virgin resources, there are cases where extracting minerals from complex products may be highly environmentally taxing – particularly if large amounts of impurities have to be removed. Moreover, when e-waste is disposed of or stored improperly and leakages occur, the surrounding soil, groundwater, and air can be contaminated. This can have adverse effects on the health of the residents living close to urban waste collection or disposal centers.

Yet, the collection of old electronic and electrical parts by manufactures, in order to recycle these and produce new parts, is gaining traction. For example, Renault offers its customers the option to lease, rather than buy, the batteries of all the electric vehicles it produces. Currently, 93% of its electric vehicle customers make use of this option. The batteries of electric vehicles contain large quantities of copper, cobalt, nickel, and lithium. Renault is therefore currently working with partners to investigate different ways to recycle the metals from vehicle batteries and to reuse these in their manufacturing.


Mining for gold in urban waste

Through urban mining, gold can be reclaimed from urban waste, such as old circuit boards. A ton of circuit boards entails about 100 times the amount of gold found in a ton of newly mined gold ore. It is estimated that globally there are precious metals worth $55-$60 billion inside old circuit boards. Alone from one ton of disposed printed circuit boards, it is possible to recover “gold worth around $12,000, copper worth around $2,000 and silver worth $1,400”. Japan alone is believed to have accumulated 5300 tonnes of gold, or around 10% of global gold reserves, through products and waste products. Japan's Environment Ministry estimates that approximately “280 grams of gold can be recovered from 1 tonne of, or around 10,000, mobile phones”. The Ministry says this is 56 times the amount found in newly mined gold ore.

In conventional e-waste recycling, there is a large focus on recovering gold and other metals. Despite this, “some recycling processes [still] require a lot of energy and are technically complex, leading to additional costs and environmental impacts”. This typically means that the recycling is not that profitable. Generally, “printed circuit boards and other components are shredded, sorted, and then separated”. Overall, “efficiently filtering out specific metals remains tricky and adds to the cost of recycling”.

Recycled gold currently makes up under 30% of the global supply. As the prices and demand for gold have risen, there is however a new market for recovering gold from e-waste. As the gold output from mines is beginning to decline, recovering gold from e-waste is becoming more relevant. While the increase in gold from mine productions was only roughly 3% in January to September 2023 compared to the previous year, the global supply of recycled gold in this timeframe increased by roughly 10%. Many startups are now trying to tap into the potential that the urban mining of e-waste presents. In line with this, some startups have reported “making as much as $85,000 per day recycling old electronic circuit boards”.

A large part of the problem when recycling e-waste lays in its diverse mix of materials. Removing materials such as gold from e-waste typically requires either brute force or an acid bath. Notably, the conventional methods used to recover the valuable metals “often rely on synthetic chemicals that can damage the environment”. Therefore, “[t]he common methods for recycling electronic waste [also] have several disadvantages, including environmental pollution, health risks from hazardous materials and inefficient recovery of valuable resources”. Several startups and research institutes are currently working to make the process of recovering gold from e-waste more efficient, safe, and environmentally friendly.


The future of urban mining

Artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to play a significant role in the future of urban mining. AI can be used to detect objects based on a variety of visual features. This goes beyond what pure color and light-based sensors could do and works similarly to a human eye. In recent years, AI and machine learning has increasingly been used to sort mixed household waste, and progress is also being made in the e-waste space. A new technology from Recycleye, for example, can separate “printed circuit boards (PCBs) distinctly from other pieces of metal and plastic”. The technology sorts between high value items – such as brass, cables, copper, and PCBs – and lower value materials – such as aluminum, batteries, ferrous metals, plastics, and steel. It can then “extract precious metals for recovery”. Notably, the Recycleye technology can also “identify and remove batteries from the wider materials stream”. The “ability to recognise […] batteries reduces the risk of ignition during the recycling process”. This is because lithium-ion batteries come with a significant “risk of ignition during the sorting process” and pose a fire hazard for recycling facilities. The removal of batteries from waste streams is often a manual task. AI and machine learning, however, now have “the potential to detect and sort [out] batteries based on visual features”.

In addition to AI, new recycling methods are also shaping the future of e-waste recycling. Researchers at the ETH Zurich, for example, recently “developed a way to recover gold from e-waste by using a milk-derived aerogel”. The aerogel can be used to “extract highly pure gold nuggets from discarded computer motherboards”. In laboratory conditions, the aerogel could absorb 93% of the gold from a mixed solution. When the aerogel was added to “dissolved computer motherboards in aqua regia, a mix of nitric acid and hydrochloric acid”, the “[g]old ions from the mixture settled on the surface of the aerogel and were reduced, forming metallic gold”. Notably, “[e]ach gram of aerogel snatched 190 mg of gold” from the “dissolved computer motherboards in aqua regia”. In comparison with aerogel, “[e]ach gram of activated carbon only adsorbed about 60 mg of gold from [the] e-waste mixture”. This means that the aerogel method is more efficient than the more typically used adsorption method of using activated carbon. As large amounts of energy are needed to produce activated carbon, “recovering the same amount of gold using activated carbon had a higher environmental impact in a life cycle analysis”. The researchers now plan to investigate other proteins that can be created from food waste, such as keratin and tofu. They hope this “could potentially help with other needs, such as the recycling of rare earth metals”, and provide an opportunity to create new value from both food waste and e-waste.

While a rapid and largescale transition over to renewable energy is urgently needed and urban mining has the potential to play a key role in this, steps must be taken to make sure affected communities and workers are not left behind. Failing to do so can lead to resistance, community opposition, an “erosion of public support”, and even conflict. All of these can significantly impede both the progress and the pace of individual urban mining projects and the energy transition as a whole. This means that the private sector, investors, and governments must ensure that corporate human rights due diligence is carried out well, that fair negotiations are held with impacted communities, and that measures are put into place to “ensure the energy transition delivers shared prosperity”.

The next newsletter will explore further developments in e-waste recycling. If you want to be notified when it comes out, please subscribe to our mailing list.


About the author

Christine Nikander is the founder of the environmental and social sustainability consultancy, Palsa & Pulk. She studied law at the universities of Columbia (New York), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Leiden (the Netherlands). Christine has been doing scholarly research into the legal and policy framework surrounding e-waste and conflict minerals since 2015.


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Read more about e-waste and the circular economy here:


Read more about urban mining here:


Read more about urban mining for gold here:


Read more about SWEEEP Kuusakoski and Recycleye here:


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