Recycled gold for a better climate footprint

30 milligrams

According to the statistics portal Statista, around 3.5 billion smartphones are currently in use worldwide, with most owners unaware of their gold content. Due to its special attributes, the precious metal is part of almost all modern communication devices and smart everyday technologies, but also incorporated in vehicle components. On average, 30 milligrams of gold can be found in a standard smartphone. That may sound unimpressive, but the combined gold content of all mobile phones sitting unused in German drawers alone adds up to an estimated 6 tonnes.

Smartphone recycling: an important part of urban mining

The monetary value of 30 milligrams of gold is small: at around €49 per gram of gold, it is a mere €1.47. The potential sustainability contribution, however, is significant. One tonne of old smartphones contains 300 times more gold than one tonne of mined ore. Around 200 tonnes of ore have to be mined to produce a single kilo of gold. In the manufacturing process, up to 16 tonnes of CO2 are released, even if the most modern, environmentally friendly technologies are used. In contrast, CO2 emissions from the still rather elaborate recovery of gold from e-waste such as smartphones only amount to about one tonne. The carbon footprint is even more favourable if a kilo of gold is produced entirely from recycled scrap gold such as dental gold or gold jewellery. At only 53 kg, that is just 0.3 percent of the CO2 emissions caused by traditional gold mining.

Not all sources for gold recycling are used to date

While 100 per cent of dental gold and gold from chemical production plants as well as all properly disposed smartphones are recycled, there are 260,000 vehicles on Europe’s roads, and only very few of them will enter the recycling cycle when they are scrapped. This leaves a potential of around 440 tonnes of unrecycled gold.

Nonetheless, the share of recycled gold in overall production is continuously rising and today amounts to roughly 27 per cent. In times of crisis, however, the share of recycled gold is likely to increase and reach short-term peaks. During the financial crisis of 2009, for example, it was 42 per cent.

Arnulf Hinkel
Financial journalist

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