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We're all Sitting on a Gold Mine (but that's not good news...)

To the sadly growing list of things-I-knew-were-bad-but-that-are-actually-much-worse, I find I have to add the problem of electronic waste. I came across the attached image on CNN during the week, which lead me down a rabbit hole that finally brought me to this UN Report - that purports to tell us of a new vision of how everything can be made good - but that actually just filled me with horror at how bad it is right now.

Amongst the headline awful-facts I came across was that the EU leads the world in electronic recycling - but that that even here we only recycle about 35% of goods. Globally, the figure is half of that, at 17%.

Just looking at gold, I learned this: the expense of gold isn't a barrier to their use in electronic instruments - because so little is required for each device. But this has now led us to a situation where up to 7% of all of the world's gold is trapped in discarded electronic waste. If you compare 1 tonne of electronic waste with 1 tonne of gold ore, there is likely to be 100 times as much gold in the e-waste as in the ore. And yet that waste is sitting in landfill, or in millions of cupboards and boxes scattered around homes all over the globe as we tell ourselves 'we'll deal with that soon'.

And that means that rather than stripping the gold out of old electronic waste in a relatively clean way, we are continuing to mine for it, in one of the most filthy of all mining techniques. Which the UN report helpfully illustrates....

And its not just about gold, of course. and its not even just about pollution. The enormous electronic splurge through which we're all living might even be self limiting - because we simply may begin to run out of key raw materials within the next century.

Reading all of this reminded me of an investigation I'd run with 2nd years just before the Lockdown. I had built up a box of old AA batteries at home beside the X-Box, where they are used for the remote control. Rather than bringing them to recycling, I brought them in to class and had the students measure whatever voltage remained. I thought it ticked a few boxes: nature of science, measuring and understanding voltage etc...

And what I found was not just that the batteries all retain a measurable voltage - I expected that. But that 70% retained at least 1 Volt*. Which might be useful for some devices but apparently isn't sufficient to run an X-Box remote. And so all of that energy, with all of the attendant ecological and economic costs, is destined for electronic waste. And worldwide, that means that 83% either ends up abandoned or lying in landfill.

Is there any upside? Well, the UN report does make it clear that in electronic waste we have both a great resource and a great economic opportunity. They talk about creating a circular economy, as materials are used over and over again. So it does look like its a problem that could be solved.....


* 3 batteries actually measured at 1.5 Volts. Meaning that they had presumably gone straight from their packaging into the recycling box. Words were had, let me tell you ....

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