How long have you had the computer or phone you’re reading this on? How about the others that proceeded it? Inside all of these electronics are precious metals that are usually trashed — even though they are still usable, as this Cape Town jeweller proves.
The circuit boards that make up the bones of our devices depend on tiny bits of expensive materials to serve as conductors. Gold and silver form the neural pathways of our smartphones and laptops — and the fact that as much as 85 per cent of those devices end up in landfills means that we’re throwing away tons of precious metals, and contributing to a dangerous industry in the developing communities where our e-waste often ends up.
Top: East African Compliant Recycling facility in Machakos, near Nairobi, in Kenya. AP Photo/Ben Curtis. Bottom: Workers of Earth Sense Recycle private limited, aan e-waste company in Manesar, India. AP Photo/Manish Swarup.
“In the United States alone cell phones containing $US60 million of gold and silver are dumped every year,” writes Ashley Heather, a South African jewellery maker who salvages more than 90 per cent of her metals from circuit boards and e-waste.
Heather started out reclaiming her silver — which she turns into earrings, cufflinks, and rings — from a different form of waste: The darkroom. Because the chemicals used to process photos uses tiny amounts of silver, it’s possible to filter the dust out of the used chemicals and process it into bars of pure silver. But “traditional dark room photography is something of a dying art,” she told me over email, “and my ability to extract enough silver from the waste chemicals was growing more and more tenuous.”
Instead, she turned to e-waste — where the silver and gold is plentiful. How does a jeweller go about salvaging materials from discarded computers and phones? The process begins, she explains, with dismantling the boards from the devices. She continues:
All the components are then sent their separate ways for recycling and the circuit boards are run through a shredder before being fed into the furnace. All the metals, including high quantities of copper, are collected as a sludge.
That sludge looks like a metal goo — Heather posted this image of a combo of gold, copper, and silver:
The resulting sludge is then purified and melted into their respective materials, like the silver seen below — which Heather works with in her workshop as any other jeweller would, ultimately selling pieces like the ones highlighted by Dezeen at the Design Indaba Expo last week.
It’s an arduous process — one that she says grew directly out of the practices of the mining industry. “I wanted to offer my customers an alternative to these harmfully extracted metals,” she explains, pointing to the predatory economics of mining giants, and the massive environmental impact of mining for precious metals.
The fact that there’s simply so much of this waste, all around us — how many old gadgets do you have in your house right now? — is part of what makes the process interesting to her. “It is precisely this abundance which I think makes them such a key component in any strategy for a more sustainable approach to waste,” she writes.
But only an absolutely minuscule portion of e-waste gets this privileged treatment. Most of it is processed in poverty-stricken communities where the dirty, toxic process of salvaging is unregulated and extraordinarily dangerous for the workers who undertake it.
According to the AP, the e-waste generated in 2013 equalled 15 pounds per living person on Earth — and it’s only increasing. Most of that ends up in countries where regulations are lax, and the value of the materials inside your old phones and tablets make salvaging operations a lucrative process. Though some states are enacting legislation about how e-waste is recycled, it’s going to be long, uphill battle to see it safely recycled.
For Heather, it seems the idea is twofold: To draw attention to the practices of mining conglomerates, and to shine a spotlight on the developed world’s burgeoning e-waste problem. Check out her work here.