While the word gold conjures up images of shiny jewellery and stacked gold bars, gold is also used in the manufacture of many electronic goods, which can be recycled for cash.
While there are approximately three grams of gold in one tonne of gold-bearing ore, 300 grams of gold can be found in one tonne of mobile phones. Gold is used because it is an excellent conductor of electricity and is extremely resistant to corrosion. For proof, one only need look at photographs of gold coins recovered from sunken wreaks that have been returned to the surface good as new after hundreds of years.
Globally, approximately two-billion mobile phones are sold annually and they all contain gold. Moreover, in the next ten years, those in the industry expect a growth of about 500 percent as electronic devices are continually being renewed and upgraded. If this were a train it would be long enough to span the earth.
The World Gold Council states that 75 percent of gold supply comes from mines and 25 percent is obtained from recycling. While predictions vary, it is agreed that the supply of recycled gold will one day exceed mined production in order to satisfy the world’s growing demand for gold.
More generally, e-waste comprises all electronic goods including all devices and appliances. When buying e-waste, recyclers split it into high-grade and medium-grade stock piles.
High-value e-waste contains the largest amount of gold. This includes circuit boards from consumer electronics like mobile phones and motherboards, RAM and CPUs from computers.
On the other hand, medium-value e-waste comes from appliances such as televisions, washing machines, coffee machines and DVD players.
Gold is not the only metal found in e-waste; other metals found in circuit boards include silver, platinum, copper, nickel and tin – to name but a few.
South Africa is no longer the world’s biggest gold producer and production has been slowly declining since the early 2000s. In July 2018, the Mineral Council of South Africa announced that 75 percent of mines in South Africa are now unprofitable, due to the decline in gold reserves.
At the same time, gold is infinitely recyclable and it has been estimated that 80 percent of the gold ever mined remains in circulation in one form or another.
According to Green Cape, in terms of recycling, the paper and metal industries are the most successful in South Africa. The weakest performing sector is e-waste. Of the 322 000 t of e-waste produced, only 38 000 t, or 12 percent, is diverted.
In South Africa we have to dig far below the surface of the earth to reach the gold-bearing ore in what is an extremely capital and labour-intensive process. Therefore, what is being called “urban mining” in Europe offers South Africa a great opportunity.
Unlike traditional mining, urban mining is undertaken on the surface at landfills where electronics have been dumped.
Taking back our gold
While there are more than 20 e-waste recyclers in South Africa, Green Cape states that a lack of investment in the technology used to extract gold from circuit boards remains the greatest barrier to improved recycling. Still, great opportunities exist for those willing to make the effort.
Much of the gold originally mined in South Africa was exported as a raw material to industrialised countries. Now that this gold has returned, albeit under a different guise, let’s ensure we benefit from its reuse.