Since 2008, global economic instability has caused investors to lose faith in flat currencies and modern banking systems, which has in turn led to hikes in precious metal prices of over 100%. This increase has put the significance of wasted precious metal outputs into sharper focus, as businesses seek new sources of manufacturing resources, and investors new assets.
According to the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and the Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) e-Waste Academy, 320 tonnes of gold and more than 7,500 tonnes of silver, with a combined precious metal content of $21 billion – equal to the GDP of El Salvador – are used annually in new electrical and electronic products. Precious metals held in e-waste now outstrip the amount of virgin material available, and as the number of electrical goods on the market increases, the availability of gold, silver and other precious metals grows correspondingly.
Typically, the processes for recovering precious metals from electrical items are too specialised for the traditional waste management system, so they are classed as hazardous and sent to hazardous landfill or for incineration. As a result, scarce resources – and the value held within them – are lost, waste producers pay rates equivalent to landfill costs for disposal, and virgin materials are used for the manufacture of new products.
Consigning precious metal-bearing waste to the ‘non-recyclable’ bin is appallingly short-sighted. Products such as used x-ray film are 100% recyclable and command a high value. In fact, unlike many materials that required ‘market creation’ to shore up recycling, precious metals boast a ready-made market.
Practices within the industry obviously need to change. Waste management companies are keen to shift their business models to become resource and power generation companies. But to achieve this they need to change their focus to include the processing and recovery of precious metals and rare earth waste fractions.
Meanwhile, many savvy businesses are working directly with precious metals specialists to recover metals such as silver from a range of items, including the aforementioned used x-ray film, used wound dressings, single use instruments from the healthcare system and even air filters. Betts, for example, was established in 1760 to smelt waste precious metals from the jewellery sector. But these days we are just as likely to find ourselves recovering silver from the sludges and halides used for washing and testing high-end engineering products.
Globally, there is a cloak and dagger approach to the way that high value precious metals are recovered and reported. And as major waste producers and handlers lack knowledge in this area, it compounds the effect of value being lost to channels and partners that do not release the true value of the precious metals back to the original producer.
More products now use precious metals, and as prices rise and fall, businesses will need to find innovative ways of driving value from the waste streams that contain these materials. The days where landfill or incineration were the default solutions are long gone: we now have the ability to prolong the circulation of precious metals within the global markets just by recycling the metals that are currently in global use/circulation.
Waste producers should take stock and demand a return on the value of their products. Only when this happens will the waste industry sit up and listen, and truly be able to call itself a resource economy.
Simon Hundal is the General Manager of Betts Environmental, which specialises in precious metals recovery from waste streams. He has over 20 years’ experience in innovating and managing within multi-national accounts in the waste and recycling sector.
Photo credit: Betts Environmental