More than 7500 tonnes of silver and 320 tonnes of gold are used to make cell phones, PCs, tablet computers and other electronic and electric equipment world wide, every year.
Manufacturing these high-tech products requires more than $16 billion in gold and $5 billion in silver locked away annually in e-products. Most of those valuable metals will be squandered, however; just 15 percent or less is recovered from e-waste today in developed and developing countries alike.
Electronic waste now contains precious metal "deposits" 40 to 50 times richer than ores mined from the ground, experts told participants from 12 countries at the first-ever GeSI and StEP e-Waste Academy for policymakers and small businesses, co-organized in Accra, Ghana by the United Nations University and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI).
In 2001, electronic and electric products used 5.3 percent of the world's gold supply (at a price of under $300 per ounce). Last year, this figure jumped to 7.7 percent (at a price of around $1500).
Some 50 perecnt of the gold in e-waste is lost in crude dismantling processes in developing countries, compared with 25 percent in developed countries; just 25 percent of what remains is recovered using backyard recycling processes, compared with 95 percent at a modern high-tech recycling facility.
The bottom line in rich and poor countries alike: just 10-15 percent of the gold in e-waste is recovered; at least 85 percent is lost.
"Efforts such as the GeSI and StEP e-Waste Academy help create networks among policy- makers and other relevant stakeholders for sharing information, ideas and best practices to foster real e-waste solutions and enable the transition to a closed loop and green economy," said Luis Neves, Chairman of GeSI.
"Rather than looking at e-waste as a burden, we need to see it as an opportunity," Alexis Vandendaelen of Belgium-based Umicore Precious Metals Refining told the participants.
Chris Slijkhuis of MBA Polymers, a global firm specialised in recycling plastics, noted that a ton of plastic created through recycling requires one tenth as much water and energy as new plastic, and produces one to three fewer tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the greenhouse gas largely blamed for climate change.
Recycling just half the plastics in e-waste from the European Union alone would save five million kilowatt hours of energy, over three million barrels of oil in feedstock and nearly two million tons of CO2 emissions.
"One day – likely sooner than later – people will look back on such costly inefficiencies and wonder how we could be so short sighted and wasteful of natural resources," said Ruediger Kuehr, Executive Secretary of the Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) Initiative.
"We need to recover rare elements to continue manufacturing IT products, batteries for electric cars, solar panels, flat-screen televisions and other increasingly popular products," said Dr. Kuehr who is also head of the responsible Operating Unit of United Nations University, based in Bonn, Germany.
Beyond the lost opportunity to recover valuable resources -- which also include copper, tin, cobalt, and palladium -- discarded consumer electronics that end up in landfills or are exported to developing countries create potential health and environmental hazards, he added.
"We commit a lot of effort to trying to ensure that the e-waste generated in our country remains here and is recycled here, and we advocate tough measures against the illegal export of e-waste. Each of the parties involved needs to take its responsibility to solve the e-waste problem. If an actor doesn't do this voluntarily, the relevant responsibility needs to be established by law", said André Habets, head of research and development at the NVMP Association in the Netherlands.