Mining Gold from Trash?

Written by Luke Burgess
Posted June 16, 2021

The world's pile of discarded electronic devices, colloquially known as e-waste, is growing out of control.

According to a 2019 U.N.-backed study, the world has now amassed about 54,000,000 metric tons of old laptops, cellphones, TVs, and other dead electronic devices. That's about 16 pounds of e-waste per person.

The authors of the study calculated the combined weight of all trashed electronic devices in just 2019 was equivalent to 350 cruise ships.

Antonis Mavropoulos, president of Wasteless Future and study contributor, said:

E-waste quantities are rising three times faster than the world's population and 13% faster than the world's GDP during the last five years.

It's a lot of trash.

But it's a lot of trash that could be worth at least $57 billion, according to that study.

You see, inside every laptop, cellphone, TV, or almost anything with a battery or a plug, there is a small amount of precious metals like gold and silver as well as other valuable metals like some rare earth elements.

It's not much at all.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are about 0.034 grams of gold in each cellphone — along with about 16 grams of copper, 0.35 grams of silver, and 0.00034 grams of platinum.

At current prices, that's only about $2 worth of metals.

In something bigger, like a broken laptop, there is still only about one-tenth of a gram of gold — worth only about $5.70 at current prices. So don't go smashing up your old laptop yet looking for gold.

One-tenth of a gram of gold per laptop is not a lot. But if you had a mountain of broken laptops, which the world does, $5.70 per device quickly adds up.

The U.N.-backed study estimates the valuable components of the world's e-waste to be worth about $57 billion.

Some e-waste is, in fact, recycled for precious metals. But not much.

According to the EPA, only about 12.5% of e-waste even makes it to the recycle bin. And from there, only a small fraction actually gets recycled. The rest is mostly shipped off to third world countries and landfills.

It's tempting to think the world's e-waste in landfills could be mined. Consider this...

If the average laptop weighs around five pounds and there are 0.10 grams of gold in each laptop, one metric ton of pure laptops would contain about 44 grams of gold.

In mining terms, that's an insanely high gold grade.

According to the World Gold Council, a high-grade gold mine operates using ore that averages from eight to 10 grams per metric ton. A low-grade gold mine can operate with ore averaging under one gram per tonne.

So at 44 grams per tonne, why isn't anyone mining laptops yet?

Well, there are a few good reasons.

For one, the world's e-waste is spread all over the world.

If you have all 54 million metric tons of this e-waste all sitting in one place, it might be quite profitable to recover the valuable materials. But unfortunately, that's not the case. It's all over the place.

But more importantly, mining gold and other metals from old laptops is (for the most part) not economically feasible. It simply costs too much to recover gold from electronics.

Of course, it's not completely impossible to make a profit by recycling precious metals from e-waste. However, it's just not really worth the time.

There are a million YouTube videos of individuals claiming to have made money recycling gold from laptops themselves. And I'm sure at least some are telling the truth. But operating a business to recycle precious metals from e-waste is a different matter altogether.

And at the end of the day, for both the individual and a business, there are other way more profitable ventures to spend time on.

So there might be $57 billion in gold, silver, and other precious metals in the trash. But most of it is probably just going to sit there for now.

Of course it stands to reason that one day in the future mining gold and other precious metals will be economically feasible. But even if the price of gold and other metal prices substantially increase in the near-term — which we believe it will — there's little chance we'll see much urban mining for gold and precious metals in the near future.

Until next time,
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Luke Burgess

Luke’s analysis and market research reach hundreds of thousands of investors every day. Through his work with the Outsider Club and Junior Mining Trader, Luke helps investors in leveraging the future supply-demand imbalance that he believes could be key to a cyclical upswing in the hard asset markets. For more on Luke, go to his editor’s page.

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