Consumers squander nearly $10bn in critical minerals each year while extraction risks people and the planet

Copper mine that has scoured the landscape.
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A new report has found that every year consumers discard, or hold on to, disused electronic goods containing raw materials critical for the green energy transition which are worth almost $10bn.

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) released the new research on 12 October.

Critical minerals in electronic waste

The “invisible” e-waste amounts to nine billion kilograms every year worldwide. The related raw materials from this are worth $9.5bn. Notably, UNITAR said this equates to around one-sixth of the estimated 2019 total of $57bn for all e-waste.

Toys, cables, electronic cigarettes, tools, electric toothbrushes, shavers, headphones and other domestic gadgets contain metals like lithium, gold, silver and copper. However, consumers squander the materials because they throw away this “invisible” waste.

The report found that more than one-third of the “invisible” waste came from toys. For example, this included race cars, talking dolls, robots and drones. It identified that consumers throw 7.3bn of these items away annually.

Meanwhile, the weight of the estimated 844m vaping devices consumers discard each year is equivalent to six Eiffel Towers.

On top of this, the study also found that people disposed 950m kilograms of cables with recyclable copper wire last year. It said that this would be enough to circle the planet 107 times.

Read on...

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‘Transition’ minerals fuel human rights abuse

The findings come amidst a global dash for minerals vital to the green transition. As countries embrace greener technologies, these critical ‘transition’ minerals will be needed to make the shift away from fossil fuels. As a result, the International Energy Agency has predicted that demand for critical minerals will more than double by 2030.

In Europe alone, copper demand is predicted to multiply sixfold by 2030. This is to meet rising needs in key sectors like renewable energy, communications, aerospace and defence.

However, these minerals could come with a heavy human rights cost. Multiple reports by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) have linked ‘transition’ minerals to allegations of human rights abuse. These transition minerals refer to six critical materials that manufacturers use for producing renewable energy technologies.

The BHRRC operates a ‘transition minerals tracker’ which records allegations of rights abuses. Significantly, the non-profit has identified 510 allegations against companies extracting these minerals between 2010 and 2022.

As the Canary previously reported for instance, a BHRRC report from March on the Andean region of South America revealed that:

corporations are inflicting damage on the environment and the territories of peasant farmers and indigenous peoples.

Likewise, reports from other regions have identified similar examples of abuse. Commenting on a separate BHRRC analysis from May, the Canary wrote that:

mines in the Philippines and Indonesia had affected the health of nearby communities. Through water and air pollution, as well as damage to the environment, the mining operations impacted the food security and respiratory health of local residents.

The deep-sea dilemma at the heart of critical mineral demand

Moreover, the rocketing demand for critical transition minerals has pushed environmentally-destructive extraction solutions into the limelight. In particular, some countries have increasingly considered deep-sea mining to source these metals for meeting their net zero targets.

In June 2021, Nauru caused controversy when it triggered a rule to enable deep-sea mining in international waters. The Pacific nation did so because it sought a license for a Canadian company subsidiary to mine the seabed beyond Nauru’s territorial seas. Effectively, this ‘two-year rule’ compels the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to consider applications for deep-sea mining after a two year window. ISA, as its name suggests, governs issues concerning the ocean bed.

A July 2023 ISA meeting between nations in Kingston, Jamaica was expected to decide regulations for the mining industry. The meeting ended without finalising these regulations – but nonetheless, mining companies can still technically apply for licenses to plunder resources on the ocean bed.

The Canary’s Tracy Keeling spoke to scientist Pradeep Singh who authored a key paper on deep-sea mining. Singh explained that the full impacts of deep-sea mining on ocean ecosystems is not “comprehensively known”. However, he pointed to some studies which already suggest that the biodiversity impact could be “severe”.

Keeling therefore argued, like Singh, that the international community should “press pause” on deep-sea mining plans in order to give:

breathing space to comprehensively assess and quantify all the potential damages. That includes all the damage to ecosystems, industries, and planetary health, that mining risks.

Lack of awareness

Given the potentially stark human rights and environmental impacts of further extraction, the recycling of electronic waste minerals is crucial.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Forum, an international association of non-profit organisations, commissioned the UN report. Magdalena Charytanowicz from the non-profit group said that the main challenge to recycling electronic waste revolved around awareness. She argued that:

Invisible e-waste often falls under the recycling radar of those disposing of them because they are not seen as e-waste

As a result, Charytanowicz said:

We need to change that and raising awareness is a large part of the answer.

Therefore, if countries are to meet their climate targets through a just transition, the new report shows that better access and awareness for electronic recycling will be vitally needed.

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse

Feature image via Eric Guinther/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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  • Show Comments
    1. A large proportion of this could be recovered fairly easily by having recycling bins in local places in towns and cities – such as close to nursery/primary schools and shopping centres. A collection and recycling service run by the municipality, with profits being deployed for the common good, would be a simple way forward.

      1. That is a fine idea. The collection system in place at the moment, either at landfill sites (accessible only by car) or in shops (mostly for batteries only) is hopelessly inadequate. I’m not sure a municipal system would make a profit. It would be a service.

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