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Defunct devices now a treasure trove of precious metals for Britain’s Royal Mint

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Blank coins that have been produced at the Royal Mint are sorted before being sent to be stamped in the coin press on Aug. 1, 2014 in Llantrisant, Wales. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

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As the saying goes: One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And when it comes to electronic waste, that’s certainly the case for Britain’s Royal Mint. It’s partnered with Canadian technology company, Excir, to use a new method of extracting precious metals from discarded phones, tablets, computers and other defunct devices.

About 7% of all the world’s gold is currently locked up in electronic waste, according to estimates from the United Nations. And, less than 20% of electronic waste is recycled globally. Rather than allowing discarded devices to sit in a landfill, the Wales-based mint is trying a more sustainable method of extracting gold, silver, palladium and other metals from them. Unlike the traditional smelting process, which uses ultra-high heat to extract metals from their ore, Excir’s method uses a room-temperature chemical process. The Royal Mint says that recovers 99% of gold from e-waste in a matter of seconds.

Once extracted, the mint can use the precious metals to make products like commemorative coins and gold bars. The Royal Mint’s chief growth officer, Sean Millard, told the BBC’s Victoria Craig how the process works on the global edition of Marketplace Morning Report. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

Sean Millard: What we do in that chemistry is we first prepare the boards for extraction, we then have a painter to chemical formula, and that formula extracts 99% of the gold at a 99.99% purity in literally seconds. And the big, big difference here is that does that at room temperature and on our site. And equally importantly, or probably more importantly, it is done commercially, and also in a very sustainable way.

Victoria Craig: And then you can use those extracted metals, I’m guessing for things like gold bars and coins. Is that right?

Millard: Absolutely. So we’ve got a really rapidly growing consumer business. And this is part of the diversification of the brand, which as you probably know, is 1,000 years old and the oldest brand in the U.K. So we’ve got consumer businesses that are around commemorative coins. We’ve got precious metal investment businesses, and there are other businesses that we will diversify in.

Craig: Now sustainability is the name of the game here, isn’t it? What are some of the benefits of recycling these metals with this new technology?

Millard: So, if you look at the problem, yeah, it is genuinely one of the world’s, one of the world’s greatest and growing environmental challenges. So if you take your laptop, your mobile phone inside, those are printed circuit boards, and as I said, they’re laden with precious metals. But if you look at that, there’s the 7% of the world’s gold that sits in discarded electronics, that 50 million tonnes, which to put it in context is something like 350 cruise ships, we produce globally and only 18% of this is recycled. And now, you me and lots of other people have got around 20 unused electronic items in our household. And this is a major problem, because essentially, these discarded items go to a landfill. And this is really the essence of the problem.

Craig: So Sean, since you said that, I’ve started to think about the electronics I have around my house … if I wanted to give those electronics to you, how can consumers make sure that you get a hold of those gadgets that we’re not using anymore?

Millard: There are actually a lot of different ways you can do that today. So there are recycling centers where they pick up mobile phones, there are companies that will pay you for your disused electronics and, and increasingly the manufacturers are looking at pulling those electronics back in to work in a circular way. And interestingly, those are the kinds of relationships we’re also going to be working with is, you know, manufacturers who want to responsibly manage their end of life.

Craig: Is this more cost effective for the Royal Mint than say procuring new sources of precious metals for the things that you make?

Millard: Look, we are a commercial business, and we wouldn’t do something that is adversely commercial. But really, this has got a huge amount of benefit. By recycling on site in our site and Llantrisant, we’re able to essentially transfer the profit of that across the business as we use it as inputs into our business as opposed to having to buy gold and metals at the spot price. So yeah, it’s got a lot of benefits to us and society.

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