The Royal Mint Strikes Gold With Used Devices

When it comes to e-waste the figures involved can be astonishing. For example, 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2019. That’s about 7.3 kilograms per person and is equivalent in weight to 350 cruise ships.  

Just two years later that had grown to 57.4 million tonnes. The total global generation of e-waste is likely to swell to 74.7 million tonnes by 2030, making e-waste the planet's fastest-growing domestic waste stream. Yet only 17% of used electronics are currently recycled worldwide. 

But, as the UK’s Royal Mint fully understands, e-waste has value - and a lot of it. It is estimated by the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor report e-waste contains precious metals valued at around £41 billion, with the vast majority of it discarded. Experts believe that as much as 7% of the world’s gold may be contained in e-waste, with 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore. 

This is why The Royal Mint, whose job it is to make coins for the UK, is bringing pioneering technology from Canadian clean tech firm Excir to Britain. This allows the organisation to recycle discarded mobile phones and laptops to recover gold and, in the near future, other valuable metals.  

Anne Jessopp, chief executive of The Royal Mint, said: “The potential of this technology is huge, reducing the impact of electronic waste, preserving precious commodities, and forging new skills which help drive a circular economy.” 

The Royal Mint will use the chemistry-based technology at its site in South Wales. The process involves taking the circuit boards from old mobiles and computers and extracting precious metals by using chemistry, in seconds and at room temperature, as opposed to being processed in smelters overseas that require huge amounts of energy. 

At the moment, The Royal Mint is focusing on extracting gold from e-waste, but it plans to start to recover a number of other metals including silver, palladium, copper, tin and nickel. Plastic will also be recovered. 

The government organisation said trials of the technology have already produced gold with a purity of 999.9 - in other words 99.99% pure. The site in Wales will be fully operational by 2023.  

Action is Needed on E-Waste 

Although the move is positive from a recycling perspective, the Royal Mint plant will only recycle around 90 tons of e-waste a week, or 4,600 tonnes a year – a very small drop in the growing ocean of e-waste we are currently producing.  

In fact, most device recycling and recovery processes only focus on the precious metals like gold. Other Critcal Raw Materials (CRMs) such as palladium, tungsten and tantalum, for instance, still end up being discarded. Therefore producing new devices means those CRMs will still have to be mined, which has a serious environmental impact. 

For example, mining is responsible for around 7% of annual forest loss in developing countries, according to a recent UK government report. Mining and mineral processing also consume large volumes of water, including in arid regions. In addition, the industry uses around 8% of the world’s total energy each year to produce metals and contributes to 10% of global annual greenhouse gas emissions. 

Alongside this, the demand for laptops and portable IT equipment has risen drastically in the past two years or so. Both home working and remote learning have become much more widespread due to the Covid pandemic, meaning an increase in the demand for IT equipment from both companies and schools. 

This increased demand also adds further strain on our planet. According to Circular Computing, each newly manufactured laptop costs 316kg in carbon emissions, 190,000 litres of water and 1.2 tonnes of materials being extracted from the earth. 

In addition, as the global population grows, recycling can’t keep up with the demand for products and the CRMs needed for new IT products to be created.  

As part of its commitment to sustainable technology, Techbuyer is a full partner in multi-million Interreg-funded project Circular Economy in the Data Centre Industry CEDaCi. A particular focus of the project is Critical Raw Materials, which have been identified by the EU as in low or politically unstable supply.  

For example, demand for aluminium is growing by 10% each year. Aluminium still needs to be mined, because when it recycled, its quality diminishes and it can’t be used for certain things, such as for parts in circuit boards.  

Although the scientific community is trying to improve the efficiency of metal recovery from e-waste through new techniques they are still in their early stages. 

Currently, recycling is the last option that should be considered in relation to used technology. It cannot yet reclaim all the CRMs that go into a new product. 

Here at Techbuyer, we offer other options regarding your used technology. Our IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) service is the most secure and sustainable way to dispose of your IT hardware. We buy and process used servers, storage and networking equipment, laptops, desktops and mobile phones from thousands of private and public sector organisations every year, so they don’t add more to the e-waste mountain. In addition, to ensure absolute data security, we use world-leading data sanitisation software from Blancco and WhiteCanyon that permanently erases all data. 

It is a vital service because if action is not taken to tackle e-waste, by 2024 the UK will become the biggest e-waste producer in Europe per capita, according  to environment focused publisher Resource Media. The UK produced a total of 1.6 million tonnes of e-waste in 2019, equating to approximately 23.9kg of waste per person. The amount of waste per person will grow to 24.5kg by 2024, according to the research. 

The Circular Economy Model is Crucial 

So, while The Royal Mint’s efforts are a positive step, companies and individuals around the world must move towards fully embracing the circular IT economy model. As the WEF says: “In a circular economy, waste is designed out, and products are instead looped back into the production system at end of use. Consequently, growth is decoupled from the consumption of scarce resources, and materials are kept within productive use for as long as possible.” 

It is a viewpoint Techbuyer fully endorses. The world has to move away from the current linear economy of “take-make-waste” because the linear economy and its predisposition towards wasting valuable materials is a significant and growing threat to our people, our planet and its finite resources. 

If you are wondering what to do with your used IT equipment then contact Techbuyer to discuss the best options available.