Should mining companies also mine the resources of recycled products? Jan Kwak thinks so. He is managing director of Australia and Asia at Hatch, a multidisciplinary leader in engineering, operational and development projects in the metals, energy and infrastructure industries.
Kwak recently addressed e-waste as a valuable resource for the mining and metals industry. “Globally, we’re tossing away about AU$79.9 billion worth of valuable raw materials each year – that’s three times the output of all silver mines,” Kwak said. “Nearly all of the electronic products we send to landfill can be recycled, but we’re currently only recycling about 9% in Australia. Extracting metals from e-waste can be more economically viable than extracting them from the ground. In fact, there is about 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore, while there is about 5% of cobalt in e-waste.”
As well as providing economic benefits, Kwak forecasts that recycling e-waste will be essential to aid Australia’s transition to net zero. “High value and scare materials such as gold, aluminum, iron ore, copper, cobalt and lithium that are found in e-waste are critical to building renewable energy technologies, including solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles. As demand for these minerals grows, we’ll face supply shortages and increased costs unless alternative solutions are developed,” he said.
Despite the benefits, Kwak argues that circular economy practices in the mining industry have largely been ignored. He said, “While companies like BHP are starting to own the value chain and invest in recycling, it isn’t widespread in the industry. Unfortunately, these minerals are finite and it’s critical that the mining industry begins thinking outside the box if they want to continue to process metals. To make the business case for recycling metals, government investment and collaboration is needed to develop collection, sorting and processing infrastructure, grow awareness among consumers and overcome regulatory issues.”
Over 53 million tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2020, according to the Global E-Waste Monitor. And every year there will be more, with 74 million tonnes projected by 2030.
According to the Nickel Institute, only 10 million tonnes of e-waste gets truly recycled, meaning we are recovering the metals and other valuable materials, including nickel. The remaining 43 million tonnes of e-waste, estimated to contain recoverable material worth around US$55 billion, is not recycled, and is landfilled instead. Cellphones, computers, TVs, appliances and other electronic components which we use every day are finding an unsatisfactory end-of-life.
There is nickel in the e-waste, although the amount depends on the particular electronic components being recycled. Recovery is quite complex, as nickel is a “social metal” mixing well with most other metals.
Typically, the nickel content may be between 0.5% and 2% of the total weight of a component, far less than its copper and iron content.
The precious metals – gold, palladium and silver – even if present in much smaller quantities, may have a larger monetary value. But in the circular economy, we need to recover as much as we can, the Nickel Institute stated.
So should mining companies also mine the resources of recycled products? It is an interesting discussion. Certainly something mining companies should think about going forward.
Mark S. Kuhar, editor