To most of us, that old mobile phone languishing in the drawer is practically worthless. But to an electronic waste recycler, it is quite literally as precious as gold.
AS I held that bar of pure gold in my hand, it was hard to imagine that the precious 1kg ingot had been produced from thousands of unwanted mobile phones. Yes, there’s gold in your mobile phones, as well as other electronics. Being an excellent conductor of electricity and also extremely resistant to corrosion, the metal is commonly used in communication equipment, electronics cables, motherboards and of course, mobile phones.
But before you start harbouring dreams of raking in the bucks by selling your old mobile phones and PCs, be warned – there is only a minuscule amount of gold in them. In fact, says John Ashok, deputy managing director of electronic waste recycling company, TES-AMM, one needs more than 200,000 mobile phones or three tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) to produce a single 1kg gold ingot.
Trash to treasure: A TES-AMM employee separating a pile of used mobile phones according to their various main components such as batteries, phone, wires and headset.
Besides, recycling e-waste isn’t just about gold prospecting – such waste has lots of other useful stuff that can be extracted too. Almost 97% of a mobile phone, for instance, can be recycled for plastic, ferrous metals and lithium, among other things. Only its LCD screen is non-recyclable because of its heavy metals content.
Recycling e-waste is vital not only for the environment but for the manufacturing industry as well. Not only does it prevent e-waste from ending up in landfills and contaminating the environment with toxic and heavy metals, it helps reduce the need to create or mine raw materials for new products, which also reduces manufacturing costs.
So what happens when mobile phones and other electronic items are brought to an e-waste recycling plant? I was given a tour of the TES-AMM plant in Seberang Prai, Penang, and shown step-by-step, how the most precious mineral in the world is extracted from an unwanted piece of junk.
Collecting the waste
E-waste recycling is all about volume. The more the supply, the more raw materials you can glean from it. The bulk of TES-AMM’s supply comes from industrial and corporate sources. The old mobile phones and accessories collected by Nokia, for instance, are sent to TES-AMM for recycling.
It takes about 200,000 mobile phones to produce one 1kg gold ingot.
“We simply can’t survive on public input alone,” says Ashok. TES-AMM has the means to recycle almost any electronic item. Ashok says you can even drop your old TV at the factory, though you are not likely to get much out of it besides the good feeling of having done something for the environment.
Unfortunately, most people still expect to be rewarded for bringing in their electronic items. After all, if they can get a few ringgit for a pile of old newspapers, why should they get peanuts for something which they had paid hundreds if not thousands of ringgit for?
“People need to understand that the reason why they have to pay so much for a new item is because of what it can do for you. Once it breaks down, it is just a worthless piece of junk made of plastic and metal,” says Ashok. “They also need to understand that we still need to foot the bill for transporting, recycling and disposing the item. However, whenever possible, we will work out some form of incentives for them, whether in the form of vouchers or a token sum for their effort.”
Weighing and separating
All the collected e-waste is shipped to the 11,220sqm TES-AMM factory and stored in a large warehouse. As we walked into the building, we were greeted by numerous piles of electrical and electronic items – from computers to monitors, televisions, mobile phones and large industrial machinery.
E-waste brought here is first weighed, verified, recorded, and then sorted manually according to type, which makes it easier to determine how best to recycle the waste. Mobile phones are then separated into components such as batteries, phones, wires, headsets and so on, after which they will be dismantled.
The protection of intellectual property is an important consideration in a recycling plant. Security is extremely tight around the plant. Nokia-related waste, for instance, is stored in a secured area. It can only be acessed under supervision by a Nokia personnel.
At the end of the e-waste recycling process at TES-AMM, the 99.9% gold dust is smelted under a temperature of 1,200°C and processed into a gold ingot.
Here, a line of workers work quickly and diligently, stripping the items down to even smaller components, and categorising them into a “waste stream” consisting of plastic, ferrous metal, electronic scraps and so on.
Plastics and ferrous metals are crushed, packed and shipped to other recycling factories that specialise in such materials, as is the paper packaging waste. Even the carbon collected from printer toner cartridges is collected and sent to paint manufacturers to be reused.
TES-AMM has permits from Malaysian and Singaporean environment authorities to ship items containing cobalt and lithium (such as phone batteries) to their plant in Singapore where these heavy metals are extracted. (Permits are required as hazardous waste cannot be freely transported under the global treaty, the Basel Convention.)
“At our plant, we only retain components with gold in them, such as the PCB (printed circuit boards), the PC motherboards and so on. Everything else is left in their original forms and shipped elsewhere for recycling,” says Ashok.
Electronic scraps containing gold are sent for chemical processing while those with no apparent gold content have to be mechanically crushed first.
This process is used to crush electronic parts that contain traces of precious metals into powder form, which makes it easier to extract the gold in them later on.
It also reduces the size of components like plastic housing and ferrous materials before they are shipped out to other locations for recycling.
Arguably the most important part of the entire recycling process, this is where gold is extracted from the waste. There are two different processes for this. The first is for waste with apparent gold. The stripped down components are dumped into a bin, which is then lowered into a sequence of different chemicals that will dissolve the gold. The resultant solution is then put through an electrolysis process, which separates the gold into plates. Meanwhile, the materials with non-apparent gold content, which have been crushed into powder, are put through a chemical solution that strips away all precious metals.
And now we come to the final and most glamorous process of them all – making the gold ingots.
After the gold has been collected via the mechanical and chemical processes, it is refined through a chemical process to produce 99.9% pure gold in dust form. The gold dust is then smelted under a temperature of 1,200°C and processed into a gold ingot.
“This gold ingot will be out of our factory within hours of being smelted. Everything we produce here is already pre-booked and pre-sold to industrial buyers for reuse, so it doesn’t stay in the plant for long,” says Ashok.
Recycling e-waste will generate waste of other kinds due to the chemical processes involved. Ashok says such waste is dealt with properly, through a series of refining and treatment. The resulting wastewater is clean enough to be released into drains, while the sludge containing toxic materials such as tin, lead and arsenic is disposed of at the Kualiti Alam toxic waste facility in Bukit Nanas, Negri Sembilan.