The Potential of Urban Mining

At a time of growing resources shortages, electronic waste is a treasure trove of opportunity.
By Gemima Harvey
November 19, 2013

Piles of discarded computers, phones and television sets tower toward the sky. These stacks of e-waste will be sorted through, their contents picked to pieces and eventually refined to retrieve the precious metals and traces of rare earth elements (REEs) inside. In Delhi’s string of scrap yards and warehouses, 1500 tons of disused electronics from domestic and overseas consumers are dumped every day.

This is where 85 percent of the developed world’s e-waste ends up, according to the latest study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.

Looking like electronics graveyards, filled with stacks of hard drives, printers and keyboards, these facilities are where the work of urban mining takes place. In Delhi’s networks of formal and informal recycling units, where precious metals are salvaged from unwanted skeletons, an estimated 8500 mobile phones, 5500 televisions and 3000 computers are dismantled daily. The city generates 30,000 tons of e-waste annually, a figure that is projected to reach 50,000 tons by 2015.

The United Nations Environmental Programme estimates that every year 50 million tons of e-waste are generated globally. To put this into perspective: if the electronic items were loaded into containers on a train, the train would stretch once around the earth.
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