Recycling, proper waste treatment can be veritable ‘gold mine’ – UN environmental study

Combating the hazards of waste: new strategies to fight health, environmental risks. Photo: UNEP

7 October 2013 – Some 3.5 billion people, half the world’s population, lack crucial waste management services, significantly harming environment, health and economies, the United Nations reported today, stressing that recycling and proper treatment can be a literal and metaphorical gold mine.

“Open dumping, the most prevalent waste disposal method in many countries, can lead to acute health impacts for those living closest to dumping sites, most often the urban poor,” the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said, calling the statistics “staggering” as it released a new study on the problem that showed that one tonne of recycled electronic waste could yield as much gold as five to 15 tonnes of typical gold ore.

“In addition, poor waste management can lead to significant environmental hazards: leachate from waste can contaminate soil and water, open burning of waste can cause air pollution and a failure to use recycled materials from waste means acceleration in the depletion of ‘raw’ materials,” it added, seeks to provide strategic guidance to countries where waste management systems are disorganized, haphazard or under-resourced.

The study – Guidelines for National Waste Management Strategies: Moving from Challenges to Opportunities – released in conjunction with the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).stresses that management is not only a challenge but “a largely untapped opportunity,” with treated waste used as a recoverable resource put to profitable use.

Beyond the potential amount of recovered gold from one tonne of electrical and electronic waste (e-waste), it notes that recovered copper, aluminium and rare metals would exceed by many times the levels found in typical ores. Printed circuit boards are “probably the richest ore stream you’re ever going to find,” it says.

Other benefits include:

  • Recycling a tonne of aluminium saves 1.3 tonnes of bauxite residues, 15 cubic metres of cooling water, 0.86 cubic metres of process water and nearly 40 barrels of oil, while preventing the emission of two tonnes of carbon dioxide and 11 kilos of sulphur dioxide.
  • In 2000 recycling in the European Union generated over 229,200 jobs, which by 2008 had increased to nearly 512,340 - an annual growth rate of over 10.5 percent. The proportion of people employed in waste-related recovery activities in there increased from over 400 persons per million inhabitants in 2000, to over 600 in 2007, an increase of some 45 per cent.
  • Globally, about one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, amounting to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year.
  • The global waste market, from collection to recycling, is estimated at $410 billion a year, not including the sizable informal segment in developing countries.

    Overall, an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste is collected worldwide, a figure expected to increase to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025, with almost all of the increase from developing countries. Moreover, decay of the organic fraction of solid waste contributes about 5 per cent of global greenhouse gases.

    “Even more progress can be made if production and consumption processes are re-evaluated, so that all the inefficiencies, losses and adverse impacts associated with generating and managing waste are reduced, or, for certain kinds of products, even eliminated completely,” the document said.


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