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Mining Garbage for Gold

Every year, people buy hundreds of millions of cell phones, computers, and MP3 players. Using them enriches our lives, but disposing of them via landfi ll or incineration creates serious environmental problems. Fortunately, many electronics can be recycled. What’s more, their circuit boards and chips can be mined for precious metals such as gold, silver, and palladium. Granted, the amounts are small. (It’s estimated that it takes 80 computers to produce one gram of gold.) However, as tens of millions of computers are thrown away every year, it could quickly add up to a substantial amount.

Though the idea is promising, recycling old electronics can be difficult. Dismantling computers is labor intensive, requiring many screws, boards, and panels to be removed. However, more companies are designing machines so they can be easily recycled. Furthermore, advances in metal extraction are making the process more cost effective. For instance, a research group at the Tokyo Institute of Technology has developed a way to extract gold from items like cell phones by soaking them in an organic solvent.

Some firms, like Taiwan’s Super Dragon Technology Company, are already prospering by extracting valuable materials from electronics. Founded in 1996, the company has built itself into a multi-million dollar business. Ninety-fi ve percent of the electronics come from companies such as Taiwan Semiconductor, and the other 5% are from individuals. Super Dragon is able to produce an impressive 300 to 500 kilograms of gold on a monthly basis. If environmental concerns aren’t enough to drive interest in recycling electronics, numbers like that surely will be.

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