Can government turn gold in computers to green?

System administrators looking to stretch their IT budgets might be surprised to learn that all those clunky old systems every agency has piled up high in forgotten corners and exiled to remote wiring closets could be worth thousands or even millions of dollars. In fact, admins might be in charge of a literal gold mine and not even know it.

While working on reviews of green IT for the upcoming September issue of GCN, I was shocked to find a United Nations study that showed that $21 billion in gold, silver and other precious metals were dumped into new computers, iPads, smartphones and other electronics every single year. Only 15 percent of it will ever be recovered.

The problem is that exporting electronic waste is a big business, and few of us realize the value inside those old PCs. So federal agencies and state governments pay a lot of money to have electronic trash hauled off, and that sometimes means taking it to a third-world country to be processed and buried. However, because the workers in these trash destination countries are unskilled, often children, they don’t recover a lot of the valuable metals. They’re also exposed to toxins.

The H.R. 2284 Responsible Electronics Recycling Act would tighten up regulations and make it harder for the government and even private companies to dump old PCs and phones overseas. Initially launched with a lot of bipartisan support, it’s since stalled in committee, though it could still gain steam again. I’m saying we should take it a step farther. You should all be removing the gold from your useless computers. Now that we’re talking about $1,500 an ounce, it’s a lot less work than you think to turn a profit.

The bill was mostly proposed to stop the poisoning of children in foreign countries, a noble goal we should all support, but I think keeping our electronic trash at home could word work even better. Consider this: the locations of the gold and silver, as well as other semi-precious metals like copper, tin, and palladium are well-known for electronic devices. If not, a database and a roadmap of valuable materials could be created for every device fairly easily.

Now, what if electronic waste could then be brought to a central facility where those metals would be easily removed, following the roadmap, by trained professionals? If the government ran a facility that only did that, it would make for a cleaner environment and a tidy bit of change added to the public purse.

With the metal wealth recovered from just a few old computers, an agency could probably buy a few thousand new iPads. There’s an incredible amount of money involved, so I’m sure something could be worked out. You might even say it’s a golden opportunity, waiting to happen.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Fri, Jul 20, 2012

Not as much precious metals in modern electronics as you think, and a lot harder to recover SAFELY at price points that aren't more expensive than virgin metal. Not like old military electronics that had lots of silver solder and heavily gold plated leads.

Fri, Jul 20, 2012 BaltFed

I remember when an IBM 360 was worth more for the fingers on its pc boards than as a used computer, and it was easy to just lop them off the boards and toss them into a pot to recover the gold. However, the rise in the price of gold led contact manufacturers to develop ways to use thinner and thinner layers of gold to keep costs down, so I'm not sure how much gold there is in an individual piece of equipment these days. At $1,500 per troy ounce, $21 billion is 14 million troy ounces. How many billions of devices are made each year? Fourteen million ounced spread over 100 billion devices is 0.00014 ounces per device, about 21 cents per device, and even that seems too high per device when you consider all of the digital watches, FM radios, and pedometers sold for a buck at the local Dollar Store while still making a profit. I think the cost of recovering all that gold, spread so thin among all those devices, would be rather expensive in the long run.

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