Put down your gold pan and step out of that stream. If you’re really hunting for gold, just head on over to your local junkyard, where tons of that magic yellow metal – literally tons of it – are thrown away every year because of inadequate recycling.
According to a report released by the United Nations University on April 19, improper disposal of electronics and electrical products worldwide amounted to 41.8 megatons of metals and plastics that could have been recycled. That’s not just iron and copper and aluminum, but silver and gold, as well – and a whole helluva lot of it.
Gold is commonly used in many modern-day items, after all. As an electric conductor, gold accommodates low voltage currents and has no risk of corrosion that might otherwise interrupt a contact point. This superiority to other metals results in gold being used in practically all electronics, ranging from televisions to computers to smartphones.
Those same items have short life spans, though. Consumers quickly replace them and simply discard the older, gold-bearing models without recycling. According to UNU:
Less than one-sixth of last year’s e-waste is thought to have been diverted to proper recycling and reuse.
UNU states that 2014’s trash contained about 300 tons of gold. Based on its current value of approximately $1,200 per ounce, that amounts to over $10 billion of pirate’s treasure that was tossed in dumps and landfills just last year alone.
The U.S. and China are responsible for about one-third of this waste, UNU estimates, but the per-capita rate is highest in northern Europe.
If this hasn’t piqued your interest from a monetary point of view (your cellphone has about 50 cents worth of gold, Geology.com says), then think about the health risks this e-waste threatens. As UN Under-Secretary-General David Malone points out in this report:
(T)he hazardous content of e-waste constitutes a ‘toxic mine’ that must be managed with extreme care.
These same electrical/electronic items can also contain lead glass, cadmium, mercury, and chromium – toxins that are associated with many physical ailment and even mental disorders.
They create environmental risks, as well, and not just by littering up via landfills. Many electronics contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which are known to deplete ozone.