Urban Mining: Gold in Our Trash
Urban Mining is about a program in Belgium that collects dead cellphones from Africa and ships them to Umicore, a Belgian mining company. At present, the price of gold is so high that it’s cheaper to retrieve it from old cellphones than from new mines. At present a gold mine yields 2-3 grams per metric ton on average – on average cellphones yield 300 grams per metric ton.
Umicore also recovers other metals and rare earth minerals from cellphones, including silver, palladium, copper, lead nickel, thulium and europiam. The company separates the metals in a special smelter heated by burning the plastic in the phones.
The Belgian NGO responsible for collecting the phones is called Close the Loop. They pay Africans 0.25 euro for their phones and sell them to Umicore for 1 euro. They also recycle secondhand European cellphones to Africa (the average European cellphone user keeps their phone for 18 months).
The filmmakers also visit a German gasplasma plant that re-mines landfills to recycle discarded computers. The plant melts down the plastic to produce plasma rock, an environmentally friendly alternative to cement and lightweight insulating tiles. The gasplasma plant also produces energy as heat, biogas and hydrogen.
In 2010 Swindon England opened a gasplasma plant that produces enough electricity to power 15,000 homes. Germany is also providing technical guidance to China, India, Croatia and Greece in building their own gasplasma plants.