Design me a gold digger

Gordon Brown selling off half of Britain's gold reserves ten years ago was undoubtedly his biggest resource security clanger. He sold at the bottom of the market, and he was foolish to do so. Since then the price of gold on the open global market has more than quadrupled and many economists believe his decision has cost UK taxpayers a whopping £7bn.


Considering the high value of gold coupled with the volatility of raw material pricing and supply risk, you would think it imperative to cling onto this metal. So I was shocked to learn that up to 75% of gold is lost in this country during the recovery process of end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment (EEE).

Many lay blame at the door of reprocessors and the recycling techniques they use. Shredding is a pretty blunt way of trying to extract gold (and other precious metals) as it tends to disperse them to the atmosphere. If you take palladium for instance, about 5% of this ends as up in filter dust during this process.

While sorting technologies could be adapted and WEEE operators could be better educated on handling techniques, I think the crux of the issue lies further up the supply chain. It rests with the original equipment manufacturer.

If printed circuit boards were designed better so they were easier to remove from a product during disassembly, this would go a long way to minimising the loss of precious metals. It would also avoid expensive producer responsibility costs which ultimately foot the bill for WEEE recovery.

We could learn a lot from Japan, where product design starts with disassembly. Here prototype EEE is tested to see if it's easy to take apart manually. If not, the prototype is sent back to the designer - it never enters production.

Whether the UK is capable of adopting such a logical approach is questionable. My experience would suggest that designers and reprocessors don't really talk to each other. What is needed is greater facilitation to bring both parties together - this could be orchestrated by the manufacturer or retailer - or indeed a quango such as WRAP.

There are embryonic signs of movement on this issue. I wrote an analysis piece last month on new alliances which could trigger the advent of material optimisation; a term which needs to supersede waste minimisation as it’s more realistic avenue to go down.

We can't look at waste anymore. We need to examine how materials or energy flow can feed into our system. Nature does it very well. If we can tap into a bit of biomimicry, well, what a golden opportunity.

maxine perella

Topics: Waste & resource management
Tags: | producer responsibility | resource security | supply chain | WEEE | WRAP
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