Trash or Treasure

Profiting off our digital waste

By Emma Butz. Photos by ERI.


You are cleaning out the garage and find a box full of tangled up chargers, an old Blackberry from 2007, and plugs from your old VHS player. What do you do with them? As technology continues to evolve, more electronics are dumped in landfills than ever before. Recently, a new industry has taken on the responsibility of using our digital junk to harvest the precious metals found inside. This new way of looking at our old digital hardware comes with an emergence of businesses recycling it. 


“There is some commodity value in the digital material that we are recycling. Computers have gold, copper, silver, etc. that we’re then able to sell on the market,”  said David Hirschler, the director of equipment sustainability and legislative affairs at ERI, an electronics recycling company headquartered in Fresno, California with branches across the country. “We get over a hundred million pounds [of digital waste] a year from various companies and people. We’re doing every kind of product that you can imagine and every brand.”


The electronics recycling process produces funds for the metal recycling industry with a process called urban mining. This is defined by the Waste Management Journal as any process that “extends landfill mining to the process of reclaiming compounds and elements.” The valuable metals that are recovered from electronic waste can be up to 50 times richer than those mined from the ground.


“Our shredded circuit boards probably have a higher content of gold and other precious metals compared to what you would pull out of a mine.” said Hirschler, “So, because there’s a higher percentage of those valuable materials in there, there’s higher returns.”


Hirschler described urban mining and the recycling process.


“They have a large-scale shredding system which really sorts and shreds material into different commodities and components that ship out into the market…we’ll bring [the metals] down to just about commodity level, and yeah sell them back as raw materials,” he explained. 


Rockaway Recycling, a scrap metal yard located in New Jersey, posts daily value prices for computer scrap and other materials. They will even buy back some old electronic waste to recycle and profit off the metals kept out of landfills. 


On their website, they state, “Rockaway Recycling takes computers and some parts from them.” As for what they can recycle, they continue to write, “We will buy laptops and computer towers for scrap. We also buy the components from inside them…be sure to keep the different parts separately as we generally pay much different prices for most items.”


In addition to the growing concern of e-waste in landfills, laws that began to pass as early as 2002 are now in 18 different states including New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, and California. These laws have placed requirements on the recycling of these digital products. Some of these laws extend as far as banning e-waste from landfills, setting a fee up for the collection and even placing extended producer responsibility.


“ERI started in Fresno, California sort of in response to what is known as the SB 20 law,” said Hirschler. “That’s a mandate where any item with a screen has a fee and that fee goes to the recycling of that product…so that’s a benefit to us, ERI, for providing those services.”


Large companies like Apple have even began their own recycling programs after the SB 20 law passed in California in 2005. 


Apple’s website states, “The Apple Recycling Program is offered to consumers, individual purchasers, and small business customers. Apple will accept recycling for computers, monitors, and peripherals — such as printers, mice, keyboards, scanners, and so on.”


According to the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, an organization designed to inform others on the best sustainable practices, $21 billion worth of gold and silver are used to make electronics every year. Electronic waste can yield between 300 – 400 grams of gold per metric ton, while upwards of 50 million tons of electronic waste is scrapped every year. The EPA reported in 2010 that only 27 percent of e-waste in the United States was recycled, with mobile devices being the least recycled item at 11 percent.


Many industrializing nations have started to practice digital recycling after millions of old, unused electronics were dumped into landfills and polluted the surrounding ecosystem. Currently the largest electronic waste processing center is located in China, generating $75 million in revenue each year.