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Want Precious Metals? Forget Mines, Go to Landfills

Technology advances at a phenomenal rate in the consumer electronic device market, with

Landfill
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Landfill

more efficient, faster, lighter, more powerful devices being released each year. This means that each year thousands of tons of devices are discarded as newer versions replace them, in fact e-waste is one of the fastest growing components of human waste.

Not only is the quantity of waste vast, but also the value in terms of precious metals and plastics that could be recovered and recycled. According to experts at the first ever Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), urban landfill sites now amount to actual treasure troves, full of precious metals on a scale (in terms of grams of precious metals as a portion of total landfill volume) that's 40-50 times richer than the corresponding number for actual ore being taken from mines.

Despite the fact that world gold production increased 15 percent between 2001 and 2011, from 3,900 tons to 4,500 tons; the percentage of that supply being used in electronic devices also increased from 5.3 percent to 7.7 percent. Each year 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver are used in the manufacture of iPads, Samsung Galaxy Tabs, notebooks, PCs, smartphones and more. Recovering that metal when the device is discarded could be worth $21 billion a year.

Currently it is estimated that only 10-15 percent of the gold in e-waste is actually being recovered.

Despite the wealth in gold and silver, Laexis Vandendaelen of Umicore Metals Refining in Belgium, claims that a huge wealth also lies in the copper, tin, cobalt, palladium, and plastics used. In fact, recycling just half of the plastics in e-waste in the European Union alone would save 5 million kilowatt hours of energy, more than 3 million barrels of oil, and reduce carbon emissions by nearly 2 million metric tons, Vandendaelen said.

—This story originally appeared on Oilprice.com.