Dec '12/Jan '13

High-tech ore bodies

Shift to mining electronics more mental than material

By Zoë Macintosh

Cellphones have a much higher per-weight value than mined ore bodies | Courtesy of

Cellphones contain a vast array of minerals – gold, silver, platinum, copper – and over 50 other specialty metals. As an ore body, trashed cellphones represent a much higher per-weight value than raw materials from a mine: a fact that has spawned a value chain that parallels conventional mining. However, there is a lot of progress to be made in the field, and the greatest barriers to increased production come from psychology, not from technology.

“It took me a while to see the value of buying and selling old cellphones because I thought I was in the recycling business,” says Patrick Hebert Jr., director of electronic scrap collector “But, really, it’s a form of mining – urban mining. We’ve got these products that have high value and are no longer being used. And we just have to be more creative about sourcing.” The Canadian company provides discarded electronic products in bulk to both regional and foreign smelters.

Before starting his own business, Hebert was an ­­e-waste stream analyzer at a now-defunct electronics recycling company. In 2009, a fire assay of phones led him to re-evaluate his employer’s approach to e-cycling. The test showed that ash from burning cellphones contained 235 grams of gold per tonne. “An entire computer had about 11 grams of gold per tonne,” Hebert says. Suddenly, the company’s practice of grinding up bulky, lower grade products like TVs and computers for re-sale to a smelter seemed wasteful.

Yet when Hebert suggested targeting the cellphone stream, he encountered a flat “No.” The e-waste recycler was not interested in focusing its volume reduction service on products that required a heat treatment – the most effective way to separate the highly comingled metal and plastic in cellphones, Hebert says. Emissions were too great of a concern. The company went under that same year due to low profits.

Hebert believes that for e-recyclers to be truly successful, they need to change business models. “My thinking is that e-recycling is more like mining than recycling,” he says.

The mining mindset: active collection of e-waste

While researching a safe way to dispose of seven million bags of by-product that remained when the recycling company shuttered, Hebert visited facilities that extract value from the waste products of the mining industry. Speaking with people who sell bricks made from industrial mining sludge, he discovered there are many accustomed to hunting for worth in waste. Hebert was inspired to take a cue from the mining industry and target, rather than passively collect, material streams.

His company has a two-pronged approach to its management of the cellphones: buys phones from individuals and corporations, wipes the data and sells the phones through eBay, its retail store, or international distributors. Phones that cannot be resold due to damage or entrenched data bring in profit for the company through sales to EDI Refining, an Orillia, Ontario-based distributor that shreds, bulks and ships the cellphones to final destinations like the Xstrata-Horne smelter in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, and the Boliden Rönnskär smelter in Skelleftehamn, Sweden.

“One way to look at it is rather than one location or deposit that has a lot of value, we have 26 million [Canadian cellphone subscribers] who have things of value,” says Hebert. “But, more specifically, there are companies within that 26 million people, the large organizations that have several hundred or thousand employees, who also distribute phones to their people. And those are our sources, those are our mines.”

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