The demand for precious metals by manufacturers of electrical and electronic equipment has increased significantly over the past few years. Although precious metal concentrations in appliances are very low, these metals have a high economic and environmental relevance compared to other substances present in much higher quantity (e.g. iron, copper, plastics). This research project aims at describing and quantifying the flows of small waste electrical and electronic equipment (sWEEE) in Germany and in the USA for the year 2007, based on a combination of expansive experimental investigations carried out at TU Berlin and a review of the relevant literature. The results revealed that, in 2007, only around a third of the gold contained in desktop personal computers was recovered in Germany, and over 60% was lost for the cycling economy. Despite the lack of data, insufficient collection and losses of precious metals due to inadequate treatment were identified as the main weaknesses of the system. The results reveal new findings on precious metal cycles and support the development of strategies for reducing the losses of precious metals related to electronic waste management. The method is not only useful for assessing the recovery of valuable substances, but also for quantifying systematically the amount of hazardous substances that is disposed of in an environmental-sound way versus direct releases to the environment.
(Online publication December 8 2009)