COMMENTARY: Urban Mining

Cell Phone Recycling Gets Serious

Cell phones contain copper, silver, gold and palladium—all of which can be recovered and reused.©

Mining gold used to mean sifting through pans of water and muck to find precious nuggets. That evolved to crawling through dark passages deep within the Earth. The newest gold mine has plastic, a circuit board and the digits of that girl you met at the bar last night.

"Urban mining," or the process of extracting precious metals from cell phones, is one way to combat the wastes inherent in the mining industry. And your old cell phone is literally a deposit waiting to be unearthed. One metric ton of cell phones contains 140 kilograms of copper, 3.14 kilograms of silver, 300 grams of gold and 130 grams of palladium, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics.

Only five grams of gold can be extracted from one ton of gold ore from the ground. "It’s really as simple as getting the metals into a form so that they can be separated from the other materials. It’s no different than if you were to dispose of gold coins and wanted to collect the gold out of those," says Craig Boswell, vice president of operations at HOBI International Inc., an electronics recycling company in Dallas.

There are currently five large-scale smelters in the world that have the resources to reclaim metal from cell phones in an environmentally friendly manner, located in Belgium, Sweden, Canada and Japan. The biggest, Belgium’s Umicore, has the ability to extract 17 precious metals from phones.

But you can’t just send in old phones to these companies. Instead, you must go through cell phone recycling companies, a number of which will pay you for your used phone. ReCellular Inc., based in Michigan and the largest phone recycling company, sends about half of its phones toward metal reclamation, refurbishing the other half to be sold around the world, many times in developing countries.

Although Americans traditionally send electronics overseas for disposal, utilizing recycling companies is a far cry from just dumping electronics into third world countries like China, India and Nigeria. "In China they"ll do metals reclamation, but it’s not very well monitored. They basically dump the circuit boards into acid bath, which is not very good for environment, and it’s very unhealthy for people actually doing it because of all the fumes," says Max Speth, sales and service manager at CollectiveGood, a recycling company that ships its dead phones to Umicore.

One step of the process that has been made more efficient is the melting of plastic components, which then provide energy to melt down the precious metals. And although Stephen D"Esposito , president of EARTHWORKS, says that companies like Umicore aren’t necessarily "green" companies per se, they are still better than digging a hole in the ground.

In 2005, there were about 500 million old cell phones sitting in drawers or closets, and the number is on the rise.©

"A gold wedding band generates 20 tons of waste [with underground mining]," says D"Esposito, whose organization is teamed with CollectiveGood to collect phones. "Each time you’re recycling enough gold for a wedding band, that’s 20 tons less of waste, and that’s not even considering the cyanide used or metals released into the environment if water goes through the process."

This also doesn’t take into account the energy saved. According to Thea McManus, Acting Director of the Municipal and Industrial Solid Waste Division at the EPA, "If we took 100 million cell phones that we believe are ready today, and we recycled them and mined them, we could produce enough energy with electricity to heat and cool 194,000 homes for a year."

Before that happens, companies have to wrestle phones from their greatest enemy: the desk drawer. In 2005, there were about 500 million old cell phones sitting in drawers or closets, and with a cell phone turnover rate of about once a year, it’s only increasing.

"The issue with phones is that there isn’t much of a negative impact from storing one," says Boswell. "It’s not like it’s a 65-inch TV that every time you walk by it you think "I don’t need this in the middle of my living room." [But] when you stop using a certain phone, that’s the time to recycle it."

Meanwhile, the metals that are being mined now either go into electronics or to jewelers. But don’t expect to walk into a jewelry store and request a necklace from recycled material any time soon.

"Smelters are constantly feeding in materials, and by and large they"ll see used electronics, process them, then put in some raw ore. It’s hard to say what came out of the end at given time was from electronics," says Mike Newman, vice president of ReCellular.

To solve that issue, organizations like EARTHWORKS are working to define the conditions under which one might produce metals in a responsible manner. The goal is a labeling system that comes with the assurance that a particular product was made from recycled metal.

In terms of the final product, the only difference between the recycled metals and those that come out of the ground, are a much friendlier environmental impact.

"Copper is copper and gold is gold," Newman says. "There’s no question that we’re better off as a global society by mining these old phones or other electronics than pulling new metals out of the ground, because it works just as well."

CONTACTS: CollectiveGood; EARTHWORKS Recycle My Cell Phone program; HOBI International Inc.; ReCellular.

AMANDA PETERKA is a former editorial intern at E and writes regularly on green topics.