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There's Gold in Those Cell Phones, But It Comes at a Steep Price to the Environment

Every year Americans discard phones that contain more than $60 million in gold and silver, and those precious metals often end up overseas in toxic dumps
Ben Curtis/AP

You might want to think twice before you toss that old cellphone to the side and trade it in for a newer, sexier model.

For every one million discarded cell phones, seventy-five pounds of gold can be recovered, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And with gold currently valued at roughly $1,200 per ounce, that translates into more than $1.4 million in scrapped gold.

That's only a little more than a dollar per phone. But it's a sum that means far more to an amateur recycler — often children in developing countries, where the precious metals can end up in a toxic landfill — than it does to those who toss the phones.


When mobile devices end up in landfills, their toxic chemicals slowly break down and seep into the soil, water, and air.

But the environmental harm from electronics starts much sooner. The excavation and manufacturing of precious metals can cause soil erosion nearby mines, degrade air quality, and poison water supplies. And mining is dangerous business: Perhaps the most vivid reminder occurred in 2010 with the world watching — and waiting — as 33 Chilean miners were trapped in the San José gold and copper mine.

The good news is, at least in the United States, a greater amount of consumer electronics are being recycled than ever before. Numbers released by the EPA last week showed 40.4 percent of consumer electronics were recycled in 2013, up from 30.6 percent in 2012.

Still, every year, Americans dump phones that contain more than $60 million in gold and silver, according to Sims Recycling. The United States lacks a proper e-waste facility, Sean Magann, vice president of sales and marketing at Sims Recycling, told VICE News. This means once cell phones reach their end-of-life phase, they have to be shipped to places like Europe, Canada, or Japan, which have advanced operations able to break down and recover the precious metals.

Related: You Are Ruining the Environment By Throwing Away Your Smartphones and Computers

But the operations and shipping are expensive, and often companies and organizations take the easier route — dumping the discarded electronics in developing communities in China, India, and Africa, said Sheila Davis, executive director of Silicon Valley Toxins Collection, a non-profit focused on environmental justice. Even if someone seeks to recycle electronics in the US, more than likely the products will end up overseas, she said.


"It's really hard to make money off recycling e-waste because most of it's so low value," Davis told VICE News. "It's really tempting to ship it overseas … where it's basically dumped, and whole communities are dump sites. It's just taken over [places] like former farming communities."

When these cell phones and e-waste are dumped abroad, much of the gold and precious metals are lost. In 2011, one hundred and ninety tons of gold went into electronic and electrical products, according to Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP), an international initiative hosted by United Nations University. But nearly 50 percent of the gold in e-waste is lost in the dismantling process in developing countries, compared to 25 percent in developed nations. At high tech recycling facilities, only 5 percent is lost, according to StEP.

The recycling process for electronics in developing countries remains crude. The scene, Davis said, is straight out of a "dystopian future." Electronics being burned in fields, plumes of toxic smoke everywhere, and acid from the e-waste flowing into local water supplies — all in the attempt to recover the valuable materials inside.

Related: Inside the World's Biggest E-Waste Dump

Some of the world's most impoverished people rely on the dumpsites for their livelihoods, Magann said. Many are migrant workers who come from extremely poor areas with rampant unemployment.

These practices impact not only the environment but can lead to health concerns for the scavangers, such as impaired mental development, lung, liver, and kidney damage, and declining fertility rates, Ruedinger Kuehr, executive secretary of StEP, said.


Magann said having more domestic smelters would not decrease the practice of dumping e-waste in developing countries, because it's not a question of capacity. It's that illegal dumping is just so cheap, Magann said.

"I don't know that you could ever compete against it … it's really hard to compete with that kind of inexpensive labor," he said.

Kuehr said people within the industry are working to find alternatives for precious metals in cell phones. Already, it appears that manufacturers are substituting other metals for gold. In 2008, gold accounted for 90 percent of bonding wires in electronic products; in 2014 that fell to 50 percent, according to a report from the World Gold Council and the Boston Consulting Group.

But Kuehr said there were unlikely to be short-term breakthroughs, making it important to increase cell phone return rates and to harvest the precious metals from them to continue to decrease the amount derived from mining.

Davis echoed the sentiment and said the market for cell phones is only expanding.

"It's a major burden on the Earth for us to take away this material and throw it away or burn it after we're done with it, it doesn't make sense," she said. "We need to figure out ways to have circular economies, where all the materials that go into products can be recovered and recycled and put back into new products, so the market continues to expand and we're not tapping the Earth unrealistically for resources."

Related: Toxic Waste in the US: Coal Ash

Follow Aliya Iftikhar on Twitter: @aliyazeba