Discarded electronics are fast becoming one of the most toxic and rapidly growing forms of waste on earth.
Due to faster technological revolutions and increasing manufacturing capacities each year, an influx of discarded technology threatens to bury landfill sites, essentially smothering humans with their own inventions.
But the electronic waste (e-waste) industry also has the potential to become a significant player in the world’s economy, due to the metals able to be harvested from dumped electronic devices, and job creation.
E-waste is defined as anything requiring an electrical cord, plug or battery.
According to the United Nations’ (UN) E-waste coalition, the world annually produces roughly 50 million tons of e-waste – the equivalent of 125 000 jumbo jets – but only 20% of this is formally recycled. Most electronic waste ends up in landfill sites, or is disposed of incorrectly in poverty-stricken communities.
Due to the diversity and versatility of metals “mined” through e-waste, it has the potential to be useful to a number of industries.
In South Africa, the concept of e-waste attracted the eye of jewellery designer Ashley Heather.
Based in Cape Town, Heather and her team have worked exclusively with e-waste gold and silver since 2014.
But were it not for e-waste, Heather’s love for jewellery would not have manifested. “I stumbled into jewellery making by accident,” she said. “I had always discounted it as an option because of the environmental and social issues associated with mining and precious metals.
“I knew the only way to bring together my dual passions of sustainability and crafting precious metals was to go it on my own and, so, began the long process.”
At first, Heather worked with silver recycled from photographic waste, but it soon became unsustainable when traditional darkroom photography faded.
E-waste was a better fit, as the need to recycle it became more critical, and it contained silver and gold.
Even though the process of harvesting gold and silver from e-waste is tedious, labour-intensive and highly specialised, Heather said she “wouldn’t swap it for anything else, even with all these complexities.”
“E-waste is such a diverse category of waste that a one-size-fits-all solution isn’t viable,” she said.
On average, Heather said, 2kg of silver and 80g of gold were extracted from five kilograms of circuit boards.
In 2019, the United Nations calculated that e-waste is worth at least $62.5 billion (about R1 trillion) annually – more than the gross domestic product of most countries.