Gold recycling from laptops: there’s gold in them thar Dells!

Dealing with waste from electronics equipment has mainly been driven by legislation to stop poisonous elements leaking into the environment. Now a scheme has been launched that will make more use of laptop motherboards by recycling the gold content.

Mining for gold is an an incredibly energy-intensive and environmentally damaging process because the amount of gold retrievable from its ore is so tiny.

Electronics, however, has developed something of a gold habit. The precious metal is an excellent conductor; it doesn’t tarnish or corrode like copper and silver, and so can be used in very thin layers to reliably conduct small currents. Its main use is at contact points where oxidation would be more of an issue for other metals.

To offset the mining problem, Dell Computers has launched a project to reclaim and reuse the gold already embedded in its discarded laptops.

“At the start of this project it was our ambition to use more recycled materials in our products,” explains Louise Koch, Dell’s corporate sustainability lead, EMEA. “We have been using recycled plastics from our own computers since 2014 and now we are expanding into using gold from motherboards and recovering that and using it both for new motherboards and turning it into gold bars and supplying it to Nikki Reed to make jewellery.”

Nikki Reed, famous for her role as a vampire in the ‘Twilight’ series of films, co-founded a company called Bayou with Love that designs sustainable fashion. All materials are ethically and responsibly sourced. Reed will be designing the Circulation collection of jewellery using 14 and 18-carat gold recovered from Dell laptops.

“Bayou with Love was created to bring greater awareness to the human impact on our planet and show that beautiful items can come from sustainably sourced and recycled materials,” says Reed. “By recycling gold that was once considered ‘waste’, Dell and I are working to create an environment where we continuously reuse resources and strive for zero waste.”

Koch says: “We have been working with scientific partners who claim that recycled gold has 99 per cent less environmental impact than virgin gold because of the negative impacts of mining and the working conditions in the mines; there is huge benefit there.” Only about 12.5 per cent of electronics are responsibly recycled globally. In phones alone Americans throw away more than $60m in gold and silver every year.

“In order to get 2kg of gold you need to have 15,000 laptops so in each laptop there would be about 60mg of gold,” says Koch. “This is a partner project we have just launched, but the first computers with the recycled gold [the Latitude 5285 2-in-1] will be available in March. Our plan in this first year is to use about 17,000 laptops to get just over 2kg of gold, which will be used in making six million circuits for new laptops.” However, Dell uses nearly 3,200kg of gold in its products each year, so a considerable ramp up will be required to make a noticeable dent in overall consumption.

The partner in question is Wistron, which has set up a facility in Dallas, USA, to extract gold from motherboards electro-chemically and then melt it into bars for easy transport. The gold bars are then used to make a ‘gold salt bath’, which is used by Dell’s ODM partners in Taiwan for dipping components before being used in new motherboards.

What's it worth?

Gold recovery

The amount of gold in each laptop is minuscule, but the sheer number of laptops and other electronics that are unethically dumped means recovering it is becoming feasible

60 micrograms of gold in each laptop. It takes 15,000 to retrieve 2kg of gold.

12.5 per cent: the amount of electronics that is responsibly recycled globally. Dell is attempting to greatly increase the number of recycled materials in its laptops.

$60m worth of gold and silver is lost annually in the US by the
disposal of phones.

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