Published in El Pais, 17 Abril 2018
When asked about the main uses of gold, most people think about jewelry or money, few would mention electronics, but the valuable metal has high conductivity and it’s corrosion resistance makes it a popular metal for electronic devices including smartphones and personal computers. Some have even made a living recovering discarded electronics and recovering their valuable resources but thanks to the rising demand for electronic cars, mining for resources in discarded electronics, known as urban mining has become more lucrative and South Korea is leading the way.
In 2016, South Korea was able to extract approximately $18.38 billion dollars worth of cobalt and lithium, two key ingredients in rechargeable batteries out of electronic waste, meeting over 20% of that country’s demand and automakers and electronic manufacturers are continuing to rely on recycling plants as resources dry up elsewhere.
What makes this method truly wonderful is that it meets the criteria of both businessmen and environmentalists as recycling this material can be up to 13 times cheaper than mining the traditional way meaning companies like Samsung SDI are looking at starting their own recycling plants and continue to rely on them more to meet their supply needs.
It is not all good news however as whenever there is money to be made, there is someone looking to increase those margins and the workers are often on the losing end. It is no secret that disposing of electronic waste improperly has serious environmental consequences and many companies often illegally export their electronic waste to developing countries to dispose of them in a cheap and dangerous manner. Furthermore, the valuable resources are not lost on the local populations as they look to collect the minerals themselves. While this does provide them with a source of income their recovery methods are often dangerous, and the daily inhaling of toxic fumes often results in people dying of cancer in their early 20s.
This should frighten governments from promoting this industry within their own borders as they start to realize their new-found riches but just as electronic giants such as Samsung and Apple must be aware of the working conditions of their suppliers, they too must be mindful of their own recycling plants and its perils.
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