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There Are Critical Minerals Hiding in Your Junk Drawer

Just 17% of electronic waste is collected and recycled, squandering vast quantities of materials that could be repurposed into new products. 

A customer looks at Apple Inc. iPhone 14 Pro smartphones at an Apple store in Sydney, Australia.

A customer looks at Apple Inc. iPhone 14 Pro smartphones at an Apple store in Sydney, Australia.

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg
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As countries scrutinize mineral supply chains needed to fuel the clean energy transition, one potential source is hiding in junk drawers and trash cans all over the world. An estimated 5.3 billion phones will fall out of use this year, according to data from the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) for the Global e-Waste Monitor — adding to what researchers call a largely untapped “urban mine” that could be used for new technology like solar panels, wind turbines and electric-vehicle batteries. 

While return rates vary by country, globally just 17% of electronic waste is collected and recycled on average, according to Dr. Kees Baldé, a senior scientific specialist at UNITAR’s Sustainable Cycles Programme and a lead researcher behind the Global e-Waste Monitor. Many devices end up in landfills, which is both a hazardous pollution problem and a waste of vast quantities of metals and minerals, such as copper and palladium, that could be recycled into new products. In a press conference, Baldé noted that the mining, refining and processing involved in producing a mobile phone accounts for 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions produced throughout its life. By repurposing old phones, users can cut those emissions significantly.