E-Mining: Turning your mobile into money

17 July 2018

Interview with

Peter Cowley

Now what do you do with old and dead gadgets, like TVs, computers and phones? Most people just throw them away and many end up in landfill. But, on a global scale, are we throwing away a fortune? Many people think so, including Sydney-based materials scientist Veena Sahajwalla, who’s pioneering what she dubs an “urban mine” at the University of New South Wales to recover precious metals from discarded gadgets. To take a look at the numbers, Chris Smith and Izzie Clarke were joined by Tech expert and Angel investor Peter Cowley, so what should we be looking for? 

Peter - I think we're primarily talking about smartphones here although the academic mentioned CRT, cathode ray tubes. If you take a smartphone, they build high end ones probably about $200 or $300 but the low end is only $40, the total amount of recyclable materials, the biggest of all in terms of value, is gold. But on average only 31 milligrams each phone, which works out to about $1.20, silver are much more, about 150 milligrams, copper at 15 grams. But copper’s pretty cheap you know, about 9 cents per phone. If you take everything out of the phone, you're only talking about $1.30 or something like that from the whole lot. The best use of a phone is actually to refurbish it and to recycle it and put it back into use rather than to break it down, I think.

Izzie - How much is it all worth, the materials that we're looking at here?

Peter - Well the lady in Australia has come up with a number of about £300,000.

Chris - Just to clarify, what do you mean by £300,000?

Peter - This was the capital cost of the equipment.

Chris - So that's what it cost her to start doing this.

Peter -  Exactly. To produce some equipment, which I think is probably based on a furnace which will then separate out the metals, if it can do. So you will need about 100 phones now and of course 100 phones now is quite a lot of transport involved with that so rt of thing. So is that worth it? I'm not sure. There’s another wonderful robot called Daisy, humbly named after 2001: A Space Odyssey, Howl, if you remember when it was being switched off it sang Daisy. Apple has produced disassemble phones. Now whether it’s done for the reason, I'm not sure, whether it's actually recycling or not.


Chris - So you're saying there's a £300,000 upfront capital cost in setting up your infrastructure to strip out phones and recover the materials. So if you're reckoning you're getting pence per phones worth of precious metals back, there are 7.5 billion phones on Earth and that's just phone, so there are lots and lots of materials that could potentially be scavenged this way. Do you not think it's a viable business model?

Peter - That depends on a number of factors, doesn't it. It depends on bringing back the device to somewhere where it's processed. There is something called the WEEE Directive in Europe which means a manufacturer has to take back the device and then recycle it or dispose of it correctly. It's been around about 15 years now. And I've electronics business that has to do that occasionally. So to get it back, the capital equipment cost of the equipment to do this, the processing costs etc., refining it and then redistributing back into the supply chain. If you take that phone, you've probably got to say $1.30 out of it. You know, $1.30 is going to cost you the best part of that just to get the phone back to processing plant. I would think. Another fact you should take into account, the landfill costs are in the UK £90 a ton. I'm not quite sure what the volume of a tonne is but because there are about 8,000 or 10,000 phones in a tonne, you're talking about a penny, the cost of actually disposing it, which is completely the wrong thing to do, clearly. I mean absolutely positive about the secular economy in recycling.

Chris - How do you actually get the stuff out of the phone?

Peter - I have a phone here in front of me which obviously the listeners can't see.

Chris - It doesn’t look like it would work very well anymore. 

Izzie - Looks like it’s been dropped on a night out.

Peter - This is actually an iPhone 3 so it's a long time ago. And if you look at it, the amount of gold is really very small. What would be very useful, of course, the most expensive item in the phone is the screen. But you can only do that by the way of recycling it. What the lady is talking about in Australia is taking the precious metals out of it. There's no doubt that as a set of component parts, it's got more value than the raw materials inside it.

Chris - Oh really? So it’s not worth it, grinding it up and getting the bits out. You actually want the components.

Peter - I don't believe it is because if gold was 40 times more, and it's $40,000 a kilo anyway, if it was 40 times more expensive than it would be different.

Chris - Because one figure I saw was that if you look at how much gold comes out of the ground in terms of how much you have to move to get a gram of gold or so. I was in Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. I watched trucks going by with 250 tonnes of ore on board. And they told me it can take up to 4 of those to get 1 golf ball sized hunk of gold at the end of the day.

Peter - Yes.

Chris - Whereas these gadgets, some statistics are suggesting actually the recovery rate might be much much higher. 350 grams per tonne of phones than 9 grams per tonne of ore.

Peter - No, I think that figure is based on CRT, cathode ray tubes, I think her figures are based on 5 grams of gold in the CRT. These are in old fashioned televisions, game arcade machines, and air traffic controllers probably still use them as well.

Chris - So is it a no from you then Peter?

Peter - I’m out, yes. I would not invest in it.

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