There's $21 billion hiding in our junk computers and electronics

There's gold in them thar circuits! And silver. And palladium, copper, tin, and more. In fact, according to a report from the United Nations University, there's some $21 billion in precious metals in every year of our current e-waste, of which only 15% is being recovered.

They cite current worldwide electronics manufacturing as using 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver, and e-waste dumps are 40-50x more precious metal dense than mined ore.

The problem is that recovering this metal is excruciatingly toxic — especially in developing nations. Widespread reporting has painted a picture of our used gadgets being shipped off to other countries, where people strip them for parts, exposing themselves to incredibly dangerous fumes and chemicals at all stages. The waste itself is handled unsafely, is exposed to dangerous chemicals to separate out its components — such as aqua regia — and the pollution it produces can be equally toxic.

So, how do you reconcile the desire to reclaim these precious metals with the environmental danger? Sure, you could do it on a small scale with appropriate equipment, but this campaign is calling for better, more modern recycling centers:

However, some 50% of the gold in e-waste is lost in crude dismantling processes in developing countries (compared with 25% in developed countries); just 25% of what remains is recovered using backyard recycling processes (compared with 95% at a modern high-tech recycling facility).

More advanced facilities can also recycle other materials from the e-waste, like plastic, and can do more to sequester the pollution. If done right we could harvest some remarkably valuable materials, and help reduce landfill space dramatically.

Or, if you're feeling incredibly stupid, you can try and reclaim the metals at your own home. (Note: do not actually do this, it's a really bad idea unless you have some serious safety equipment and a PhD on hand)

Image courtesy the EMPA