The information age has sparked a revolution in the way we interact and communicate with each other. No longer does a person have to wait days, even weeks, for a letter to reach their distant loved ones. Instead, they can just pick up their phone and be instantly connected with anyone around the world within a matter of seconds.
The rise of smartphones, tablets, and PCs have created a new world that is deeply interconnected, allowing nearly instantaneous exchange of information between people and cultures. The only problem is that the devices needed to be a part of this new world only last a short time before a slimmer and better machine comes along.
Every year there are millions of people around the world who replace their old phones and computers in favor of newer, slightly improved devices. Just look to the legions of Apple fans that wait with bated breath every year for the new iPhone to be announced, completely ignoring the fact that their current phone is still fully functional.
But it is not just one particular company or group of people that drive the constant need for new consumer electronics. Major wireless providers such as Verizon and AT&T have ingrained the idea of upgrades into their customers, allowing them to ditch their antiquated phones and replace them with the latest and greatest at discounted prices.
Where do those antiquated devices end up? Most of them are thrown out with the regular trash, ending up in landfills and incinerators throughout the world. According to the UN, approximately 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated every year, and only a very small fraction of that is recycled or reused.
Electronics are not ideal for landfill disposal due to the variety of heavy metals and toxic chemicals contained within circuit boards and screens. Older televisions in particular are notorious for containing high concentrations of lead and mercury.
Though electronics do contain a bevy of hazardous elements, they also contain a significant amount of useful elements such as gold and lithium. In fact, one ton of circuit boards can contain anywhere from 40 to 800 times the amount of gold contained in one ton of mined ore.
Now consider that each of those elements had to be removed from the ground by hand; then refined and molded into the right form before begin cast onto a circuit board, only to be dumped back into the earth after a few years of use. Clearly, there is a business opportunity just waiting beneath the millions of tons of silicon wafers residing in the world’s landfills.
BlueOak is one company that has caught onto the absurdity of simply throwing out these precious metals. BlueOak is currently developing an e-waste refinery in the United States that will divert electronics from regional landfills and process them to extract metals such as gold, silver, and copper. Located in Osceola, Arkansas, BlueOak’s refinery will be able to process 15 million pounds of scrap per year with plenty of room for expansion. The company is partnering with a number of waste collectors who will separate and drop off the e-waste at the facility which will then extract the precious metals and sell them off to suppliers. The collectors then receive the majority of the profits from the sale of the metals.
This process will allow small scrap collectors to turn a profit on the e-waste they collect, an economic advantage that has only been available to larger scrap companies. Most scrap metal processors only accept large shipments, rather than the small collections of consumer electronics that most collectors can provide.
It is hoped that BlueOak’s business model will entice corporations and municipalities to step up their e-waste recycling thanks to the financial incentives offered by the e-waste refinery. Consumer electronics are only growing in adoption, with more and more form factors coming out every year. As circuit boards and touchscreens are added to everything from eyeglasses to wristwatches, the need for a simple and economically feasible way to recycle e-waste is only going to increase as we progress through the hi-tech 21st century.