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  • Gold and e-waste

    3 July, 2019

    In the age of sustainability, having a socially and environmentally responsible business model is no longer a luxury. Consumers and investors, increasingly conscious of the impact commercial activities can have, are exerting pressure on businesses to ensure their practices are as ethical and responsible as possible.

    One of those impacts – as highlighted by this FT article  – is the growing volume of e-waste. As the article notes:

    “Humanity is expected to produce 120m tonnes of “e-waste” a year by 2050, up from about 50m tonnes today, according to a UN report launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year. Only a fifth of appliances and devices are currently recycled, with the bulk of the often toxic items ending up in landfill or incinerated.”

    Spotting a sustainability opportunity, businesses are springing up with the aim of mining this e-waste mountain for ethically sourced raw materials:

    “Yet electronic waste often contains valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper — there is 100 times more gold in a tonne of discarded mobile phones than in a tonne of gold ore, according to the report.”

    But e-waste, both as a problem and opportunity, is far from a new topic. We shone a spotlight on gold recycling, and specifically the sourcing of gold from electrical and electronic waste, back in 2015. Two key findings were:

    • Reclaiming metals, including gold, from end-of-life electronics is more complicated than reclaiming them from high-value sources of recycled gold (primarily jewellery)
    • While the growing volume of e-waste offers a huge opportunity for recycling of industrial materials, the waste that lends itself to gold recycling will constitute only 2% of the produced waste volume.

    Note: addressable industrial material is material that lends itself to gold recycling through smelting and refining.


    But, with a recent UN report indicating that less than 20% of e-waste is formally recycled, more can (and should) be done. Despite the challenges, it seems there is good reason for optimism. In our report, we noted:

    “Numerous agencies and companies are working to resolve problems associated with WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) recycling, with an eye toward turning challenges into opportunities. WorldLoop, for example, cooperates with recycling companies to train African entrepreneurs to establish environmentally sounds solutions for WEEE collection and dismantling. Thanks to these partnerships, numerous African countries now have sustainable operations. To date, these operations have collectively dismantled more than 1,000 metric tons of WEEE and have sent more than 25 metric tons of circuit board to high-standard recycling sites.”

    And as the FT article shows, many jewellers understand the importance of sustainability and responsible sourcing and are prepared to commit to business models which support that.