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商业 - 科技

城市采矿工厂能够破解全球电子垃圾泛滥难题吗?

Katherine Noyes 2014年07月01日

美国一家创新资源回收公司正在投资建厂,希望从垃圾填埋场的电子垃圾中回收金,银,铜和钯等贵重金属,同时减少电子垃圾对环境的污染。

    最近一个暴雨如注的周二下午,美国前副总统艾尔•戈尔和一众硅谷高管聚集在一个他们似乎不大可能出现的地方——阿肯色州奥西奥拉市,参加一家很有前途的新企业的动工仪式。

    在高达3,500万美元融资的支持下,总部位于加州的蓝橡树资源回收公司(BlueOak Resources)准备在这座拥有大约8,000人口的小城建设一家新工厂,但它要生产的并不是某种高科技新玩意。恰恰相反:在电子垃圾堆积如山,似乎要淹没全球的大背景下,蓝橡树的新设施将成为全美第一家致力于回收金、银、铜和钯等贵重金属的“城市采矿(urban mining)”冶炼厂。

    蓝橡树公司CEO普里瓦伊尼•布拉多说:“美国消费者每天扔掉的手机足以覆盖50个橄榄球场。”

    布拉多表示,尽管全世界生产的7%到10%的黄金和30%的银都变成了电子产品部件,但在全球每年产生的5,000万吨电子垃圾中,仅有15%经过某种形式的回收处理。绝大多数设备都被弃置于垃圾填埋场,或者被出口到海外,最终用明火焚烧。

    外界普遍认为,位于中国广东省汕头市的贵屿镇是全球电子垃圾之都。贵屿镇每小时大约收到4,000吨垃圾。这座小镇的二恶英类有机污染物目前已达到有记载以来的最高水平,布拉多说,当地九成居民的神经系统都受到了损伤。她补充说:“这当然是一场人道主义灾难,但这些电子废料包含的价值同样令人震惊。”

    蓝橡树公司准备建设的新冶炼厂获得了来自阿肯色州教师退休基金(Arkansas Teachers’ Retirement Fund),一个由欧洲和美国国内投资者组成的财团,以及阿肯色开发金融管理局(Arkansas Development Finance Authority)的支持。这座工厂计划在起初阶段每年处理1,500万磅电子废料,随后将迅速扩大。这家冶炼厂将于2015年末正式投产,预计将为当地带来50个技术工作岗位。凯鹏华盈风投公司(Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers)是蓝橡树的主要投资者之一。

    “开采一盎司黄金会生产30吨垃圾”

    “开发一种面向21世纪,针对电子垃圾蕴含的贵重材料的高品质回收流程,具有非常重要的意义,”供职于美国自然资源保护委员会(Natural Resources Defense Council)都市的资深科学家艾伦•赫什科维茨说。

    电子垃圾是城市固体废弃物中增长最快的组成部分,鉴于电子产品包含了大量贵金属、贵重塑料和可回收玻璃,赫什科维茨说,“它们遭到习惯性地丢弃这个事实简直不合情理。”

    布拉多说,事实上,从每吨印刷电路板中可提取大约10盎司黄金。而要获得相同数量的黄金,人们至少需要处理100吨金矿石。

    更重要的是,“在矿山开采一盎司黄金会生产30吨废物,”其中包括汞和氰化物,赫什科维茨说。“相比之下,从电子垃圾中回收黄金,可以消除如此巨大的生态负担。”

    当然,已经有美国公司在专门从事翻修和回收二手电子产品业务,Sims Recycling和ECS Refining是其中两个规模较大的例子。布拉多说,这类公司通常采用手动方式或自动粉碎机来拆除不可翻新的设备,以便回收它们的铝、钢和塑料,但电路板则被运送至海外的冶炼厂。

    她补充说,大多数贵重金属恰恰蕴含在这些电路板之中。为了以可持续的方式回收贵重金属,蓝橡树公司的新工厂将接收这些电路板,进一步粉碎加工,然后把它们放入等离子电弧炉进行熔化。

    “从价值链的每个部分中回收价值”

    长久以来,欧洲的电子垃圾解决方案一直领先于美国,不仅仅是因为政府颁布了相关指令,企业重视回收问题,还应该归功于已经到位的基础设施。

    布拉多说:“欧洲一些国家的二级冶炼厂拥有充足的资本和技术能力,它们能够重新利用一些产能来处理电子垃圾。”

    On a recent, rather stormy Tuesday afternoon, former U.S. vice president Al Gore and an assortment of Silicon Valley executives assembled in an unlikely spot—Osceola, Arkansas—to break ground on a promising new venture.

    Backed by $35 million in financing, California-based startup BlueOak Resources is building a brand-new facility in this city of 8,000 or so, but it’s not to manufacture a new high-tech gadget. Quite the opposite, in fact: BlueOak’s new operation will be what it calls the nation’s first “urban mining” refinery dedicated to recovering valuable metals such as gold, silver, copper and palladium from the growing mountains of e-waste currently threatening to overwhelm the planet.

    “Every day, U.S. consumers dispose of enough cell phones to cover 50 football fields,” said Privahini Bradoo, BlueOak’s chief executive.

    Although between 7% and 10% of the world’s gold and 30% of the silver produced goes into electronics, only 15% of the 50 million tons of e-waste created globally each year undergoes any recycling, Bradoo said. Instead, the vast majority of devices are dumped in landfills or exported to countries where e-waste is hand-picked over open fires.

    The city of Guiyu, China—widely considered the world’s e-waste capital—receives some 4,000 tons of the stuff per hour. It also has the highest-ever recorded level of dioxins, and 90% of its residents have neurological damage, Bradoo said. “Not only is it a humanitarian disaster, but when we looked at the value contained in e-scrap, it was shocking,” she added.

    With support from the Arkansas Teachers’ Retirement Fund, a consortium of European and domestic investors, and the Arkansas Development Finance Authority, BlueOak’s new refinery will process 15 million pounds of electronic scrap per year initially, rapidly expanding from there. Production will begin by the end of 2015, bringing 50 technical jobs to the area. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers is one of BlueOak’s major investors.

    ‘For every ounce, 30 tons of waste’

    “Developing a 21st-century, high-quality recovery process for the valuable materials in electronic waste is very important,” said Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Urban Program.

    E-waste is the fastest-growing component of the municipal solid waste stream, and given all the precious metals, valuable plastics and recyclable glass electronics contain, “the fact that these are being routinely discarded makes no sense,” Hershkowitz said.

    Indeed, roughly 10 ounces of gold can be extracted from every ton of printed circuit boards, Bradoo said; you’d need to process 100 tons of gold ore or more to get the same amount.

    More to the point, “for every ounce of gold that has to be mined in the field, we produce 30 tons of waste” including mercury and cyanide, Hershkowitz said. “Compare that with recovering an ounce of gold from electronic waste—you’d eliminate that gigantic ecological burden.”

    There are, of course, U.S. companies already out there that specialize in refurbishing and recycling used electronics—Sims Recycling and ECS Refining are two larger examples. Typically, though, such companies dismantle unrefurbishable devices either manually or with automated shredders to recover their aluminum, steel and plastic but ship the circuit boards to smelters overseas, Bradoo said.

    It’s those circuit boards where most of the high-value metals reside, she added. In order to reclaim them in a sustainable way, BlueOak’s facility will take the boards, pulverize them further and put them through a high-temperature plasma-arc furnace.

    ‘Value recovery from every part of that chain’

    Europe has long been ahead of the United States in its e-waste solutions, thanks not just to government mandates and an emphasis on recycling but also to infrastructure already in place there.

    “They had domestic secondary smelters that had the capital and the capability to redirect some of their capacity toward e-waste,” Bradoo said.

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