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Fair Materials

A golden opportunity: The risks and rewards of gold recycling

Fair Materials

Why would anyone put gold in a phone? Silver and copper are better conductors, and much cheaper. The answer lies in one word: tarnishing. Silver and copper react with oxygen. Pure gold doesn’t, making it ideal for tiny circuits and connectors. What’s not ideal are the deeply ingrained issues that follow gold from mine to factory to recycling.

Gold mining — especially artisanal and small scale mining — poses some serious challenges, both on an environmental and on a human rights level. It has been linked to child labor, armed conflicts, pollution of local ecosystems and considerable greenhouse gas emissions.

 Workers in a gold mine in Busia, Uganda.

A recently published study by the Dutch Gold Sector International RBC Agreement states that the global gold demand is currently met with about 70% mined (virgin) gold and 30% recycled gold. Aside from the ethical and environmental arguments for reducing the use of mined gold in the electronics industry, there’s another simple fact: it’s not an infinite resource. We’re eventually going to run out.

One way of increasing the global supply of recycled gold is to increase the responsible collection and recycling of e-waste. When you  send us your phone for recycling, it’s one of the main materials collected for reuse. But recycling isn’t yet the perfect solution. There are occurrences where recycled gold is linked to criminal activity, money laundering, and the smuggling of e-waste to countries where it can’t actually be recycled. As one effort to address this, we’ve partnered with Closing the Loop, to collect mobile phones and batteries for formal recycling in Europe.

 A smartphone contains about 30mg of gold, 6-9mg of which is found on the printed circuit board (PCB).

The world needs many more reliable sources of recycled gold if we want a fairer electronics industry. Governments, legislators, and regulatory bodies could help: gold recycling guidelines and significant investment in recycling would be great first steps.

We need to simultaneously address the challenges facing the gold mining industry. Fairphone is a member of the gold covenant, an initiative spearheaded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which aims to increase the supply of responsibly sourced gold. Furthermore, Alongside Hivos/Stop Child Labour, UNICEF, Fairtrade Foundation, and Solidaridad, we have established a project in Uganda to fight child labor in gold mines and to set up a sustainable, traceable gold supply chain that creates a better future for miners and their families.

 Partnering with regional government representatives, local officials and opinion leaders is essential for sustainable progress.

We aim for this project to serve as a blueprint for others around the world. We would love to see more phone manufacturers and others in the electronics industry make the same effort we do to invest in and source responsible ASM gold and initiate recycling initiatives.

Want to do your part? Just send us your old smartphones (or Fairphone modules!) for recycling! In a few simple steps, you can be a part of the solution for a fairer future for gold.

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