A staggering 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver are now used annually to make PCs, cell phones, tablet computers and other new electronic and electrical products worldwide, adding more than $21 billion in value each year to the rich fortunes in metals eventually available through "urban mining" of e-waste, experts say.
Manufacturing these high-tech products requires more than $16 billion in gold and $5 billion in silver: a total of $21 billion -- equal to the GDP of El Salvador -- locked away annually in e-products. Most of those valuable metals will be squandered, however; just 15% 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 last week's 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).
"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.
Said André Habets, head of research and development at the NVMP Association in the Netherlands, a sponsor of the academy: "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."