E-waste has become the world’s fastest-growing trash stream. The worldwide accumulation of e-waste has more than doubled in the last nine years. In 2016, the yearly accumulation reached 49.3 million tons. By 2021, the annual total is predicted to surpass 57 million tons. In the United States, which generates an estimated 6.9 million tons of e-waste in 2016 (42 pounds per person), most e-waste probably goes straight into the trash. By one account, e-waste makes up just 2 percent of the total volume in American landfills — but more than two-thirds of heavy metals.
E-waste has dual identities as both environmental scourge and potential economic resource. Though often laced with lead, mercury or other toxic substances, laptops and phones also contain valuable elements like gold, silver and copper. Yet barely 20 percent of the world’s e-waste is collected and delivered to formal recyclers. While the United States has no national law for managing e-waste, leaving the issue to the states (Fifteen states still have no e-waste legislation in effect.), the European Union has some of the toughest enforcement of e-waste laws in the world, banning exports to developing countries and compelling manufacturers to help fund recycling. Europe’s recycling rates for electronics — around 35 percent overall — are much higher than the American rate.
The precious metals in e-waste, found especially in circuit boards, are more concentrated than in the most productive mines. In 2016, the gold in the world’s e-waste equaled more than a tenth of the gold mined globally that year. And yet much of this treasure is simply reburied in landfills. Based on e-waste disposal rates, Americans alone throw out phones worth $60 million in gold and silver every year.
The idea of “mining” e-waste has tantalized the recycling and electronics industries for decades.