You have electronic devices sitting around the house you’d like to get rid of, and you’ve also heard there’s gold, silver and other precious metals in many of them. It stands to reason that if you take them to a certified e-waste company, like Cohen, you should be able to make some good money.
Unfortunately, you can’t count on it.
In fact, the opposite will likely be the case. Many recyclers, including Cohen, will charge you a small fee to take them off your hands.
Even so, properly disposing of household and handheld devices is important, and it’s the right thing to do.
The Motherlode of E-Waste Myths
It’s true there’s often silver, platinum, palladium and gold in our damaged or outmoded electronics, not to mention plastic, glass and other materials that have some scrap value. The primary reason is that precious metals conduct electricity much better than alloys. They also have properties like corrosion resistance and hardness that are important in electronic devices.
Unfortunately, the likelihood of making a lot of money – hitting the proverbial “goldmine” – by disposing of them with a company like Cohen depends on whether we’re talking about what’s lying around the house or tons of the stuff collected and processed for recycling, reuse or resale.
Volume is the key. It’s certainly possible to make money on used cell phones, computers, laptops and other electronic devices, but only if you’re selling a whole lot of them. Individuals and companies that gather the amount of e-waste needed to make it pay are sometimes called “urban miners,” and they do it full time.
The problem for home recyclers is that, with the few items that are stashed in drawers, the basement or the garage, it’s not likely the precious metals will amount to enough to cover the costs of breaking them into their various parts. As great as it would be to get decent money from the gold in your old cell phone, the fact is processing costs are higher than what the precious metal ultimately will end up being worth.
Where is the Value in Discarded Electronics?
There are three ways that a retired device can find value in a new life: resale of the whole device, resale of its parts, or resale of the material once it has been shredded. The path that any given device takes depends on its condition, how modern its components are, storage and RAM capacity, and other factors.
If is a device is truly end-of-life, it will be destroyed, and the separated recyclable materials will be sold back into the manufacturing stream. That would include any precious metals in the device.
But it’s important to remember that metals are traded by weight, and an 8-lb laptop or 25-lb monitor may only contain a few grams of precious metals at most. Precious metal values can fluctuate from day to day, hour to hour and even minute to minute. The majority of a device’s weight comes from less valuable material like plastic and glass.
Then there’s the question of whether the gold is pure, mixed with other metals or contains other materials. In other words, even if the precious metal were already separated from the rest, the value would depend on its grade, i.e., the composition or quality. Obviously, metals with higher grades are more valuable because they do not need to be refined to separate them from everything else.
A scrapped, shredded laptop might end up being worth about $10 per pound of material, maybe more if it is an older device and contains more gold. Newer-generation devices typically contain less gold as advancements in technology and efforts to reduce production costs have pushed tech manufacturers to design thinner, lighter, less resource-intensive units.
Parting it Out
If the device or its parts are instead being resold for secondary use, the value of the metal is irrelevant – all of those parts have their own market values. For instance, as of this writing, laptop RAM is worth about $20/lb – but, a single laptop may only contain 1 oz of RAM, so the value doesn’t start adding up until you’re dealing in bulk.
There are multiple steps in recycling, refurbishing or reselling electronics that come between the moment you leave your old cell phone or laptop at a certified recycling facility and when they can be used to manufacture new products.
A full laptop, in good condition, and with modern components (e.g., Intel i3 or newer), may resell for about $40. But then you have to factor in labor, processing, and shipping, all of which eat into that value.
Each action costs money, usually in labor, overhead and storage, and between each action there’s generally a road trip from one type of facility to another, such as transport from a collection facility to the place where the e-waste is deconstructed to, ultimately, where it’s refined or resold.
Laptops are among the more labor-intensive devices to test, sanitize, and refurbish – a process that happens by hand, down to the last tiny screw. Monitors can also be challenging, especially the old CRT style, which contain hazardous materials and must be processed by a specialist in order to safely recover the recyclables. Likewise, devices that rely on batteries will lose value because those batteries must be recycled separately and safely.
Still the Right Thing to Do
Bottom line: Yes, there is valuable precious metal and other materials in electronics, but less than you’d think, and recycling that metal doesn’t pay for itself.
So, unfortunately, you’re probably not going to metaphorically “strike gold” selling your old cell phones, TVs and computer equipment, unless you are dealing in large volumes of fairly modern devices. That’s why businesses who rely heavily on IT equipment and go through frequent upgrade cycles use certified IT asset disposition (ITAD) providers, to recover the value of their old equipment while protecting their data and the environment.
Disposing of e-waste properly and safely is still important.
First, it costs less and is significantly less damaging to the environment to recycle precious metals than it is to mine them. For example, “One ton of circuit boards is estimated to contain 40 to 800 times more gold than one metric ton of ore.”
Second, the precious metals, batteries and other materials in electronic devices are often toxic and can contaminate groundwater near landfills if they’re disposed of in regular household waste. And depending on where you live, disposing of e-waste that way might be illegal, anyway.
Beyond that, e-waste is beginning to overwhelm the world. In 2019, nearly 54 million tons of e-waste was disposed of worldwide. That’s expected to grow by 2 million tons every year between now and 2030. Meanwhile, only 17.4 percent of globally generated e-waste was collected or recycled in 2019. That figure represents only a 0.4 percent increase from 2014-2019.
In other words, the world’s e-waste generation is growing much faster than e-waste is being collected or recycled.
To change that trend, we all need to do our part.
Cohen believes doing right by our fellow human beings and environment is reason enough to properly dispose of e-waste with a certified company. We hope you agree.