Our cities are awash with hidden gold, quite literally, as a number of academic and institutional bodies unite for a new urban mining project.
A consumerist society asks us to buy more gadgetry and gizmos, which is why the leading mobile phone producers release a shiny new device every year, and in some cases every few months.
This, however, has led to a problem not just in the societies where that consumerism takes place, but across the globe, with mountains of electronic waste building up in our landfills and in our homes.
Figures for 2016 show that almost 45m tonnes of e-waste was generated, equating to 4,500 Eiffel Towers, and by 2021 this is expected to exceed 50m tonnes.
But perhaps this mindset would change if people were aware of the goldmine (quite literally) found within much of the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) disposed of today.
While Ireland has shown itself to be better than some in WEEE recycling, the limitation of modern technology means the valuable metals this waste contains – such as copper, gold, silver, solder, steel and critical metals such as indium and tantalum – get thrown away.
To change this, a new €1.4m project led by University College Cork (UCC) has been launched called RecEOL, co-funded by Geological Survey Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency.
95pc success rate
The project will use patented recycling processes developed in Ireland for WEEE such as waste printed circuit boards (PCBs), LCDs, batteries and automobile shredder residue to reclaim more than 95pc of recycled copper, aluminium, steel and solder, compared with 70-80pc today.
The process will also be the first recycling technology of its kind to capture critical and special metals from PCBs and LCDs.
Developed by Dr Frank Riedewald from Composite Recycling in Cork and Dr Maria Sousa Gallagher of UCC, its aim is to demonstrate, at pilot plant scale, that a scaled-up commercial plant is economically viable and environmentally preferred, along with help from international partners in Belgium, Germany and Spain.
Speaking at the project launch in UCC, Sousa Gallagher said: “The RecEOL project brings together a multidisciplinary, multinational consortium from industry and academia to solve challenges, while realising the recycling business opportunities.
“This project will provide the scientific evidence that the process works, and uses this evidence to design a full-scale plant for incorporation of the technology into the circular economy.”
Pile of discarded mobile phones. Image: Poravute Siriphiroon/Shutterstock