The Gold in Your Phone Could Help the Planet

Recovering precious metals from trash

Key Takeaways

  • A Canadian company says it can extract gold from your old gadgets and help save the environment. 
  • About 50 million tons of electronic waste is produced globally every year, a figure set to reach 74 million tons by 2030. 
  • Companies are turning to high-tech methods to improve electronics recycling.
A pile of old electronic boards for recycling.

Vladimir Bulgar / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Your old gadgets could literally be gold. 

A Canadian company says it can recover around 99% of the gold used in electronics circuits using new chemical techniques. Recycling could cut the cost of personal electronics by reducing waste. It's part of a growing effort to keep components from damaging the environment. 

"Mobile phone circuit boards can have significant quantities of gold, silver, and palladium," Eoin Pigott of electronics recycling company Wisetek told Lifewire in an email interview. "It is hugely important that these metals and the other more toxic materials and chemicals found in e-waste are recovered and responsibly recycled."

Precious Metals

Every year, about 50 million tons of electronic waste is produced globally, a figure set to reach 74 million tons by 2030. Currently, less than a fifth of electronic waste is recycled worldwide, resulting in lost gold, silver, copper, palladium, and other highly valued metals. 

The company Excir claims its proprietary chemical process can extract precious metals from circuit boards in seconds. Researchers at the UK's Royal Mint are working to scale up the technology from the laboratory to mass production.

"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," Anne Jessopp, CEO of The Royal Mint, said in a news release

Using processes like the one developed by Excir, precious metals in typical household and business electronics can be recycled, refined, and reused, instead of being tossed in overflowing local landfills, Terry Hanlon, president of Dillon Gage Metals, told Lifewire in an email interview. Also, metals contained in consumer electronics are valuable. 

"Would you throw away your grandmother's solid gold wedding ring?" Hanlon asked. "Of course not—it's valuable. While electronics contain a fraction of the gold in jewelry, it nonetheless contains gold. While not all the metals found in consumer electronics are considered rare—most are considered rare earth metals, which are extremely expensive to mine and extract."

There are many different ways to recover precious metals from e-waste. However, current technologies have their disadvantages, Pigott said. 

"You've got incineration and smelting, which is not ideal for environmental purposes," he added. "There's also chemical leaching, which is growing in popularity and finally grinding, followed by either leaching or gravity separation."

"Anytime a product can be made from recycled materials, it's good for the environment and typically would cost less than using virgin metals."

Saving the Environment

Lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium can all be found in printed circuit boards and other device components. When electronic waste isn't recycled, it often goes to a landfill.

"This is where the problems really start to crop up as these harmful materials can actually leach down into the surrounding soil and eventually, the water table, permanently altering both the natural landscape and harming animals and humans in the locality," Pigott said. 

Companies are turning to high-tech methods to improve electronics recycling. Apple has a recycling robot called "Daisy" that can disassemble nine different iPhone models and recover valuable metals. The robot uses an arm to grab a device and remove the screen, and computer vision then scans it to identify the model and tell Daisy which actions it needs to take. It's part of an effort by Apple to have a net-zero climate impact for every one of its devices sold by 2030.

A new technology called optical sortation can automatically sort based on the color of the materials. Artificial intelligence is making a big push in the recycling space by using robots to pick material streams, separating them by type.  

People working at an electronics recycling plant.

Cavan Images / Getty Images

"The cleaner the streams, the higher likelihood the metals can be reused," Adam Shine, the vice president of electronics recycler Sunnking, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Better recycling techniques will keep the cost of consumer electronics down, Shine said. 

"Anytime a product can be made from recycled materials, it's good for the environment and typically would cost less than using virgin metals," he added. 

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