Cellphones contain a vast array of minerals – gold, silver, platinum, copper – and over 50 other specialty metals. As an ore body, trashed cellphones represent a much higher per-weight value than raw materials from a mine: a fact that has spawned a value chain that parallels conventional mining. However, there is a lot of progress to be made in the field, and the greatest barriers to increased production come from psychology, not from technology.
“It took me a while to see the value of buying and selling old cellphones because I thought I was in the recycling business,” says Patrick Hebert Jr., director of electronic scrap collector CellCycle.ca. “But, really, it’s a form of mining – urban mining. We’ve got these products that have high value and are no longer being used. And we just have to be more creative about sourcing.” The Canadian company provides discarded electronic products in bulk to both regional and foreign smelters.
Before starting his own business, Hebert was an e-waste stream analyzer at a now-defunct electronics recycling company. In 2009, a fire assay of phones led him to re-evaluate his employer’s approach to e-cycling. The test showed that ash from burning cellphones contained 235 grams of gold per tonne. “An entire computer had about 11 grams of gold per tonne,” Hebert says. Suddenly, the company’s practice of grinding up bulky, lower grade products like TVs and computers for re-sale to a smelter seemed wasteful.
Yet when Hebert suggested targeting the cellphone stream, he encountered a flat “No.” The e-waste recycler was not interested in focusing its volume reduction service on products that required a heat treatment – the most effective way to separate the highly comingled metal and plastic in cellphones, Hebert says. Emissions were too great of a concern. The company went under that same year due to low profits.
Hebert believes that for e-recyclers to be truly successful, they need to change business models. “My thinking is that e-recycling is more like mining than recycling,” he says.
The mining mindset: active collection of e-waste
While researching a safe way to dispose of seven million bags of by-product that remained when the recycling company shuttered, Hebert visited facilities that extract value from the waste products of the mining industry. Speaking with people who sell bricks made from industrial mining sludge, he discovered there are many accustomed to hunting for worth in waste. Hebert was inspired to take a cue from the mining industry and target, rather than passively collect, material streams.
His company has a two-pronged approach to its management of the cellphones: CellCycle.ca buys phones from individuals and corporations, wipes the data and sells the phones through eBay, its retail store, or international distributors. Phones that cannot be resold due to damage or entrenched data bring in profit for the company through sales to EDI Refining, an Orillia, Ontario-based distributor that shreds, bulks and ships the cellphones to final destinations like the Xstrata-Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, and the Boliden Rönnskär smelter in Skelleftehamn, Sweden.
“One way to look at it is rather than one location or deposit that has a lot of value, we have 26 million [Canadian cellphone subscribers] who have things of value,” says Hebert. “But, more specifically, there are companies within that 26 million people, the large organizations that have several hundred or thousand employees, who also distribute phones to their people. And those are our sources, those are our mines.”
Many consumers hesitate to part with their phones because of privacy concerns, Hebert says. Convincing them the exchange is safe and making the process easy is half the battle. CellCycle.ca facilitates this choice by guaranteeing that all phones that cannot be wiped clean are destroyed. The offer is especially appreciated by IT departments of corporations, which can now enjoy the disposal of hundreds of units without compromising company secrets.
According to Hebert, in Canada, cellphones are being discarded at a rate of up to six tonnes per day, or three phones per second. His conservative estimate for the value of that material is $15,000 per tonne.
In the U.S., there is an even larger market, and a greater business opportunity, provided the e-waste is not illegally shipped overseas for cheaper processing. “There are no U.S. smelters which can reclaim the precious metals in the circuit boards, although there are refineries that can pre-process them,” says Sarah Westervelt, e-Stewardship policy director of the Seattle-based non-profit group Basel Action Network, which runs initiatives to monitor global trade of toxic waste. “But when companies export e-waste for further processing, they need to ensure they are not violating a UN Treaty called the Basel Convention, which restricts international trade in hazardous waste.” Westervelt says the illegal shipment of e-waste to China and India makes it hard for legitimate e-waste recyclers to do good business in North America.
Incentive needed to encourage trade
Despite the relatively few smelters that process e-waste in North America, experts agree that the greatest barriers to increased electronic recycling come from collection, not processing.
Even with the most advanced technology, notes Thomas Graedel, professor of industrial ecology at Yale, “If you only collect half the stuff in a way that you can recycle it, you’re never going to do better than 50 per cent.”
Concerns about sensitive data on old devices dissuade people and companies from giving up their used cellphones. “There is a huge amount of value on the phone, and also there’s the fear that a new device will fail and the user will have to go back to the old one,” says Hebert. “It’s a psychological barrier.”
Just as miners looking to develop faraway ore bodies must rely on the construction of infrastructure, a legislative framework could help realize the potential of urban mining. In 2005, the European Parliament installed the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which set a 2016 target of 13 kilograms per person per year for the collection of listed products and prohibited their disposal in landfills. Currently, Sweden recaptures 16 kilograms per person and 75 per cent of all electronics it puts into the market, though the average EU member state’s rate is 25 per cent, says Roger Sundqvist, general manager of Boliden’s Rönnskär smelter. Regional government employees run free drop-off centres in each Swedish city, he adds, and pre-treatment companies pay for freight to their facilities.
“The WEEE directive is working well in Scandinavia and in northern Europe,” says Ann Lundholm, communications manager for the Boliden Rönnskär smelter. “Other countries in Europe still have a long way to go before recycling stations are organized and supply chains to pre-treaters are set up. When this is fully implemented, we will see much higher volumes of e-scrap on the market. This opens up possibilities for smelters.”
Hebert thinks an approach to e-waste that more closely follows how other commodities are treated is necessary. “When the metal exchanges list different grades of circuit boards, I think then we will be taking it more seriously,” he says. “There should be a financial attachment to what this material is worth. If you could trade frozen pork belly futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, then you should certainly be able to trade circuit boards.”