A recent E-Scrap article reports professors Jinhui Li and Xianlai Zeng of Tsinghua University of Beijing and professor John Mathews of Macquarie University in Sydney, research how the cost of e-scrap processing stack up against virgin resource mining. Their findings indicate that recycling is more efficient for certain key metals.
It’s no surprise that recycling is beneficial. However, did you know that beyond being environmentally advantageous, it can also benefit the economy? Recycling not only eliminates the need to build landfills, saves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, reduce air and water pollution, as well as conserve forests, but has has twice the economic impact of disposal while generating $10 billion worth of taxable economic activity each year! And the analysis conducted by the professors show economic upsides in recovering gold and copper from e-scrap compared with traditional mining.
Their findings are illustrated in a detailed report titled “Urban Mining of E-Waste is Becoming More Cost-Effective Than Virgin Mining,” are based off the author’s examination of Chinese recycling companies. China was selected as the focus of the report due to the expectation that China will be a larger generator of e-scrap than the U.S. or European countries in the years to come as well as the implemented “favorable policies” at various levels of government toward collection and processing of e-scrap, according to the study.
The report focuses on analyzing the costs associated with virgin mining for copper, lead, steel, aluminum, gold, and silver compared with the costs of recovering commodities from CRT monitors and printed circuit boards.
Using data collected from a handful of Chinese CRT recycling operations, the researchers found that the average processing cost of CRT monitors per ton is roughly $460. In comparison, generating the same metals volume as the one ton of CRTs, virgin mining operations cost an average of $5,990. Meanwhile, with circuit boards, the average processing cost among a handful of recycling operations was $1,354 per ton. To obtain the same volume of metals through virgin mining would require an average of $10,060, the study reports.
“The costs of urban mining for e-waste encompass fees paid for collection, labor, energy, material, transportation, residue disposal, and capital costs of equipment and buildings,” the researchers wrote in reference to the range of factors that were used to determine the economic realities of material processing. “In light of the same yield, the cost of virgin mining will evenly be around 13-fold and seven-fold of the cost for CRT recycling and PCBs recycling, respectively,” the report states. “Therefore, the total economies of urban mining for a basket of metals emerge as superior to those of virgin mining.”
Co-author of the report, Xianlai Zeng told E-Scrap News that the study has implications not only for e-scrap recovery in China, but for operators around the world. “If these results can be extended to other metals and countries, they promise to have positive impact on waste disposal and mining activities globally, as the circular economy comes to displace linear economic pathways.”
On the global view, the study found e-scrap recovery provides low costs in relation to global market prices for certain metals. The most significant were seen in copper and gold. For copper, processing costs fell from $6.70 per kilogram in 2010 to $1.70 per kilogram in 2015 in China, the researchers found. Meanwhile, the world market price for the metal in 2015 was at $6 per kilogram. Furthermore, e-scrap gold recovery costs have declined from $8,438 per kilogram in 2010 down to $1,591 per kilogram in 2015, when the global market price was just under $4,000. Many other types of metals also proved to be cheaper via recovery methods rather than virgin mining.
The authors note that a Chinese government subsidy is factored into these calculations, and that it particularly makes the copper recovery equation more attractive, although even without the subsidy, copper recovery costs from e-scrap run below the global copper price. The calculation also doesn’t include residue disposal costs.
Finally, the study notes that labor costs for e-scrap recovery change over time due to a “learning process” as companies figure out how to most efficiently process materials. This results in a lower labor cost per unit for a given device as that product becomes a larger portion of the waste stream, and is processed with greater efficiency.