Taking it back to the original source

Do you know how much aluminium you consume per year? Could you take a guess at how much copper your friend in a country like Brazil, Nigeria or China consumes?

It’s a bit of an odd question to ask yourself. Usually we’re asked to consider how much water or energy we consume, to which most of us splutter out some figures we don’t even really understand, like 5kWh (a unit I’m still getting my head around, but apparently most professionals don’t get it either, so here’s a good explanation if you wish to learn more, from David MacKay).

Yet, the electronics we own consume vast amounts of non-renewable resources. We’ve had an impact on the environment in just buying the product, even before we turn it on. I came across some data regarding the extraction of aluminium to produce electronic goods and I spent 40 minutes checking calculations because I couldn’t believe how much waste is generated.

The figures just reinforce how critical it is to recycle materials from electronics.

Metals for electronics: crash course
To make electronics, we need to extract metals. Some of the most popular metals found in electronics are:

  • Gold
  • Silver
  • Palladium
  • Copper
  • Tin
  • Aluminium

There are also some less well-known metals, like ruthenium, antimony, bismuth, selenium and indium.

Your average mobile phone contains around 250mg of silver, 24mg gold, 9mg palladium and 9g of copper (according to this report by the UNEP). That’s not much on an individual scale, but consider that in 2010 1.6 billion new mobile phones entered the market.

For the 1.6 billion mobile phones produced in 2010, this required:

  • 400 tonnes of silver (equivalent to the weight of 80 African bush elephants)
  • 38.4 tonnes of gold (7 elephants)
  • 14,400 kg of palladium (2 elephants)
  • 14,400 tonnes of copper (2 elephants)

In 2007 the combined sales of mobile phones and personal computers represented 3% of global supply of silver and gold, 13% of palladium and 15% of copper [1].

If we continue mining silver at the rate at which we did in 2010, we’re left with 23 years worth of reserves. So by 2033 all the silver in the ground will have been mined. The good news is that silver is fairly substitutable, but that doesn’t solve the issue of resource scarcity. For copper it’s been estimated we have about 39 years left and for gold about 20 years.

If these figures have stoked some interest, take a look at the Resource Revolution Report. It contains lots of information on all types of resources and how we’re guzzling them away.

Back to the start
In answer to the original question, people living in a country with a GDP higher than US$25,000 are said to consume between 15-35 kg of aluminium per year. Individuals living in a country with a GDP lower than US $5,000 consume less than 5kg of aluminium per year. The aluminium is embodied in TVs, laptops and computers amongst others.
To produce 1 tonne of aluminium, you need to extract 4-5 tonnes of bauxite first, which then gets processed into aluminium. One tonne of bauxite generates 13 tonnes of waste. So one tonne of aluminium generates circa 65 tonnes of waste (13*5). Click on the image to the right for better detail.

For 10,000 televisions, you need to extract 6t of aluminium, which generates 390 tonnes of waste (equivalent to 36 new London Routemasters [2]).

So far, so good. Now, lets consider that 200 million new televisions were produced last year. This means 7,800,000 tonnes of waste produced to make the aluminium for 200 million TVs. This is equal to 300 million London Routemasters.

These facts are for aluminium alone. The extraction of copper, silver, gold and other materials further contribute waste and pollution to the environment, and human health.

All these numbers provide a somewhat clouded, jaded, view of the environmental impacts of electronics. It’s not easy to get your head around what 7,800,000,000 tonnes of solid waste looks likes, or even means.

What’s important to understand is that mining metals to produce electronics is driving resource depletion and waste generation. The facts speak for themselves and make a good case for recycling. According to the UN: “Recycling 1 kilogram of aluminium saves 5 to 8 kg of bauxite, 4 kg of chemicals and 14 kilowatts of electricity. It also produces 95% less air pollution.”

The origin of electronic and digital life begins deep down in mine ores. The question is how long and how deep can we continue digging?

“A river bleached white with the waste of aluminium production, emerging into red lake.” Darrow, Louisiana – J. Henry Fair

Footnotes

[1] The Global Aluminium Recycling Committee. Global aluminium recycling: a cornerstone of sustainable development. London: International Aluminium Institute, 2006.

[2] Weighing around 11 tonnes each according to Wikipedia (no shame in using it as reference).