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。
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。
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.