Chile’s next mineral boom: urban mining and e-waste?
Copper may be fueling the Chilean economy’s rapid expansion, but some companies are more interested in extracting minerals from old cell phones than from the earth.
Tuesday, August 07, 2012
Chile produces 8,000 tons of e-waste every year, most of which goes directly to general waste land-fill. Photo: Tekserve_NYC / Flickr
One of the most lucrative mining opportunities of the 21st century may be developing in Chile, and it’s not the country’s booming copper industry, or tomorrow’s star of the Atacama, lithium - it’s used phones and old computers.
That’s because companies around the world are beginning to take up the practice of urban mining - extracting gold, tungsten, platinum, iridium and other precious metals contained in everyday electronic junk, or e-waste.
So why are these companies turning toward recycling? The answer is simple: reusing elements found in e-waste is not only far more environmentally friendly than digging them up from the ground, it’s also far cheaper.
Green Technology Solutions mining subsidiary GTSO Resources is one of the emerging companies currently scouring the globe for opportunities in rare earth minerals and precious metals production.
“Even massive corporations are waking up to the fact that the computers and electronics that we throw out after two or three years contain a lot of minerals that are simply too valuable to end up in a landfill,” GTSO CEO Paul Watson told Forbes.
“Mobile devices such as Apple iPads and iPhones contain tungsten, lithium, gold and other minerals that are growing scarcer and more expensive by the day,” he said. “There are billions of dollars in minerals locked up in old, unwanted electronics right now, and the race is on to dig them out.”
Chile’s national commission for the environment, CONAMA by its Spanish acronym, estimates that the Andean nation produces around 7.5 million units, or 8,000 tons of e-waste every year, and at the moment, most of that is going into the country's general waste management system.
But all that looks set to change as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation (OECD), of which Chile is a member, is starting to demand that its members implement a legal framework to regulate their e-waste disposal.
In short, that means big opportunities for urban mining companies.
"Outside of the capital city of Santiago, there is very little urban mining activity going on in Chile at the moment," said Watson. "That's significant, because Chile is producing 2,600 tons of e-waste per year in discarded mobile phones alone. We believe there is plenty of room for an emerging company like GTSO to swoop in and start removing the valuable and potentially hazardous minerals from the unwanted Apple and Google Android smartphones piling up there."