July 6, 2012 at 7:03 PM ET
Your computer is a gold mine — literally. Though a very small one. Yet even when millions of computers and components are thrown away every year, the precious metals locked up in them are going to waste. Billions in gold, silver, and other rare elements are being wasted by inefficient e-waste management.
Every year over 300 tons of gold are used to create the world's electronics; that's 7.7 percent of the world's supply, and valued today at around $21 billion. Its high malleability and conductivity have made it an excellent material for certain components, such as the interface between memory and the computer's motherboard. Since all that's necessary is a layer a few microns thick, you could take apart dozens of PCs and only get a few dollars' worth of gold. Tom's Hardware did just that and ended up with something the size of a BB.
When done on an industrial scale, though, isolating these precious metals can be useful, perhaps even profitable. But generally poor e-waste management worldwide means that only around 15 percent of the total is actually reclaimed, leaving billions sitting in landfills or dissolved in waste water. The situation was discussed last week at the first-ever Global e-Sustainability Initiative, held in Ghana.
The technology exists to do it properly: a modern facility can recapture up to 95 percent of the gold being thrown away. Developing countries, however, which import e-waste by the ton, are very inefficient at dismantling and recovering it. More importantly, the work of sifting through the e-wreckage is extremely dangerous and often done by children, who run the risk of poisoning and injury every day for pennies. Ghana is itself a major e-waste dump, which accounts for the location of the conference.
"Mining" these urban waste collections could be profitable and ecologically beneficial, but at the moment not economically feasible. Factories must be built, processes developed, and the waste itself transported and handled. Gold mining operations have infrastructure in place to pull the metal from ore, and it would take a major investment (not to mention international cooperation) to establish a global workflow for e-waste. That's what the Initiative aims to foster, with cooperation from the United Nations and willing companies.
With the price of gold up a huge amount in the last decade, riskier collection ventures may get a green light and the billions sequestered in toxic e-waste could be reclaimed. For now, though, the treasure is still locked away.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.