Urban Miners Hunt for Gold in Piles of Electronic Trash

Singapore (Feb 17)  Wrapped in plastic and piled outside a warehouse in northern Taiwan are small mountains of notebook computers, PC displays, keyboards and old glass monitors. For Super Dragon Technology Inc., there’s gold in them there hills.

This is urban mining, the business of getting back all those expensive materials that go into making our gadgets. A notebook computer can yield as much as a gram of gold. Taoyuan-based Super Dragon extracts more than 50 kilograms of the precious metal each month from the must-have electronic toys of yesteryear and the equipment that makes them.

Instead of open pits or mile-deep tunnels, Super Dragon relies on consumer recycling programs and manufacturers to supply it with its ore, containing valuable metals like gold and copper, and less-valuable byproducts like plastic and glass.

“Older PCs are more valuable because they used more gold in the past,” said Super Dragon Vice President Cosmas Lu, pointing to pallets of computers, wrapped and counted for processing. “These days, we can get more from an iPhone than from a whole desktop.”

Around 7 kilograms (15 pounds) of electronics are discarded per person annually around the globe, with less than 20 percent of that being reconditioned or recycled. Volatile commodity prices and more efficient manufacturing that uses less precious metals means that recyclers like Super Dragon and Hong Kong-based Li Tong Group are increasingly reliant on government subsidies and corporate conscience to cover their costs.

Companies like Apple Inc. and Lenovo Group Ltd. offer to recycle customers’ old products, or even give cash for the trade-in of relatively recent models. Apple then pays recyclers like Li Tong a fee to shred the old phones, tablets and computers.

In Taiwan, home to some of the biggest electronics manufacturers, the government pays companies like e-Titanium Consulting Co. a subsidy of NT$303 ($9) for a notebook, and NT$215 for an LCD monitor. Even so, margins are thin, said Jackie Wang, the recycling consulting company’s founder.

“We do it because we think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. Through a website, E-titanium offers cash to consumers for old devices that are picked up by a courier and sent to Super Dragon.

Inside Super Dragon’s factory, a series of crushers connected by conveyor belts progressively pound, smash and shred notebooks, circuit boards and monitors into pieces. The company says the details of its process are a commercial secret.

Magnets, vibrating rigs and solvents seek out the valuable metals. In a modern notebook, the most money comes from copper-laden wires and cables. At the end, most of the remainder is a pile of plastic dust.

Even that has some value. At his studio in downtown Taipei, Arthur Huang, founder of Miniwiz, and his team use a small laboratory to try out combinations of plastics and glass, yielding new materials with new uses.

“It’s leftovers of leftovers,” Huang said.

Just like prospectors, urban miners have their potentially richer deposits.

One such source is stored in 1,000-liter drums near Super Dragon’s mountain of discarded PCs. The slurry inside, a byproduct of making circuit boards, could yield more than a gram of gold per liter.

Or it may not. Recyclers bid for the containers of waste after analyzing a sample of the ooze. Get the calculation wrong and this is fool’s gold on which the recycler will lose money.

And like in primary mining, Super Dragon’s most lucrative business is right at the source of the ore: in cleaning and scrubbing the equipment that makes the semiconductor parts. The recycler has a contract with a manufacturer who makes analog chips used in communications devices like phones. These special semiconductors use a high proportion of gold and as much as 70 percent of the precious metal gets splashed onto the production equipment during manufacturing, said Lu.

Super Dragon scrubs it off and returns the cleaned equipment to the chipmaker for a fee, plus a bonus if it can extract more gold than expected.

“From electronics recycling, you can get almost any material you want,” says Miniwiz’s Arthur Huang. “The challenge is to find an application for it.”

Source: Bloomberg