Mining for Gold in 50 Million Tonnes of E-waste

e-waste circular economy

E-waste is the fastest growing category of hazardous solid waste in the world, with millions of tons generated each year – 50 million tons, to be precise. And with business as usual, it is predicted that this figure will reach 120 million tones in 2050.

E-waste, or electronic waste, is discarded electronic or electrical devices, such as smartphones, laptops, and printers, as well as appliances such as microwaves and refrigerators. A growing demand for electronics, coupled with decreasing prices, means that there are now more devices than humans in the world.

It goes without saying that this rate at which we are making and wasting electronics is profoundly unsustainable. According to the World Economic Forum, only 20% of all e-waste is properly recycled. The other 80% is incinerated, landfilled, or shipped away to improper recycling centres where the world’s poorest workers take them apart by hand. These ways of handling e-waste not only generates unsavoury pollution, it also exposes people to hazardous materials found in most electronics.

Not only that, $62.5 billion-worth of value is contained – and lost – in our growing mountain of e-waste. That is higher than 120 countries’ annual GDP. This value comes from the precious metals that electronic devices contain, such as gold, silver, copper, and rare earths, but also from the value that an old yet intact devices hold in their potential to be refurbished and sold again.

As such, the problem of e-waste is not just a problem – it is also an opportunity. This opportunity is made possible through the circular economy – an economy in which our limited resources are not sucked out of the earth and dumped back onto it in the form of waste, but rather an economy in which our resources are preserved, retained, and reused over and over again.

‘We don’t want precious minerals and metals to be the new plastic. E-waste is not pollution, nor is it waste – it’s a vital resource we are only just starting to value in full.’

– World Economic Forum

So how exactly can we use the circular economy to turn the problem of e-waste into the opportunity of e-waste? This infographic by the World Economic Forum outlines the loops of a circular electronics lifecycle.

Circular economy of e-wastee
The full circular economy life cycle of electronics.
Image: World Economic Forum


It all starts with design. The way that the vast majority of electronics are designed is for them to be bought, used for a period of time, and then replaced once one part becomes old or damaged. Repair is possible, but often costly and bothersome – at the end of the day, it’s just more convenient to get a new one.

When designing for circularity, however, products are instead designed to be durable, easily repairable, and reusable. One of the ways this is done is by designing devices to be modular. Modularity is when a product or system is composed of a collection of smaller components – or modules – that can each be independently created, installed, and replaced. This way, once one part of a device breaks, such as the screen of a laptop or the left speaker on a pair of headphones, it is easy to repair or replace that one part rather than tossing the whole thing out for a new one.

Furthermore, circular design also reviews the materials that are used to create the product, substituting out non-renewable, un-recyclable, or potentially harmful products, and integrating recycled materials into the mix as much as possible.

During production, these recycled materials and scrap metals from previous production cycles are integrated back into the production process, simultaneously eliminating the amount of scrap that is generated by each production batch and reducing the amount of virgin material needed.


The focus of a circular economy of electronics is extending the useful life span of the electronic devices that are in circulation in the economy. This can be done in two ways: via device-as-a-service business models, and via refurbishment.


Device-as-a-service business models, or leasing schemes, rethink the ownership models we are familiar with. The ownership model used today for electronics is a traditional ownership model, in which the consumer purchases the product and consequently becomes the owner of it. He may receive a warranty to cover any damages for a period of time, but ultimately he is responsible for the well-being of the device and can do with it whatever he pleases.

With a device-as-a-service model, however, the consumer does not purchase the device but rather leases it from the provider by paying a monthly subscription fee. The provider is then responsible for repairing or replacing the device when it breaks or when an upgrade is available, and the consumer is responsible for handing the device in once the leasing period is over. Thus, in this model, ownership is shifted from the consumer to the provider.

This ownership model combats e-waste by ensuring that all devices are recovered, either for it to be refurbished and resold (or re-leased), or for its materials to be harvested for recycling. This is attractive to providers, as they are able to continue profiting off the returned devices by reselling or re-leasing them, or by using the device’s material inputs in future production cycles. This is also attractive to consumers, as leasing rather than buying their devices means lower upfront costs and a constant guarantee of repair by the provider.


Just because a device has reached the end of its journey with one owner, doesn’t mean that it has reached the end of its useful life. The concept of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ could not be more true for electronics – the plastics, metals, and rare earths inside them are indeed precious, but when working together in the form of a functional device they become vastly more valuable. Thus, rather than immediately sending an old device to the recycling centre, the circular economy prolongs the value and useful life of electronics by encouraging their repair, refurbishment, and resell to a happy new owner.

End of Life

Even once an old device is truly dead and gone, value can still be retained from it in the form of its materials. Just like we mine the earth for precious metals, so can we mine this growing mountain of e-waste for the valuable materials it contains.

The benefit we get from doing so shows itself in more than one way. From an environmental perspective, harvesting the materials from e-waste combats the landfilling of this waste, and substantially reduces the amount of CO2 emissions generated as compared to the emissions generated when we mine the earth’s crust for these same materials. This also makes sense from an economic perspective: there is 100 times more gold contained in a tonne of mobile phones than is contained in a tonne of gold ore. In fact, there are more reserves of certain materials contained above the ground, encased in electronics, than there are left in the ground.

urban mining e-waste circular economy
Urban mining, or extracting the materials from electronics, shows greater prospects than traditional mining.
Image: Urban Mining

Urban mining is already being done, but only to a small extent. In order to maximise device recovery and material recycling, policies should be introduced that give incentive to consumers or businesses to hand in their old devices. Furthermore, new markets are starting to emerge for the trade of these second-hand devices and materials, such as MaterialTrader.

We at MaterialTrader are working towards forwarding a circular economy of electronics by helping to turn e-waste into e-resource, by facilitating the trade of e-waste and other machinery on our online marketplace.


Finally, the materials that were mined from previous batches of electronics are integrated into the production of new electronic products, via high-tech recycling methods that ensure the recaptured materials are kept in their highest quality.

E-waste or E-resource?

Considering all the ways there are to get more value out of our electronics than we currently are taking advantage of, it is clear that the problem of e-waste has so much potential to be transformed into an e-resource. And that potential lies within the circular economy.

To recap, here’s why a circular economy of e-waste is a world of opportunity:

  • It tackles the growing mountain of electronic waste, bettering the health of our people and our environment.
  • It reduces the amount of virgin resources needing to be sucked out of our planet, consequently reducing the amount of CO2 emissions generated from mining, generating upwards of 12-23 billion euros, and creating between 100,000 and 200,000 jobs across Europe (Source: a report by the European Commission).
  • It retains more value in the industry by prolonging the useful and profitable life of electronic devices.
  • It stimulates the economy via new forms of employment, such as officialised e-waste collectors, refurbishers, and recyclers, and via new markets for trade, such as second-hand markets.
You can help create a circular economy of electronics!

Do you have some old electronics lying around? Or perhaps you want to go mining for gold in a stack of old CPU processors? Instead of letting them sit in the back of a drawer somewhere, or rummaging through a dumpster, give these electronics a second chance at life by paying a visit to

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