Turning e-waste into precious metal is proving big business for one New Zealand start-up

Electronic waste is an increasing problem for all countries. Still too much ends up in landfill and there is a growing concern about the environmental impact.  Debrin Foxcroft writes on the Stuff website from New Zealand about the efforts of one start-up in their country. What is the experience in your country?


Treasure in trash: Kiwi company turns e-waste into precious metals

Turning e-waste into precious metal is proving big business for one New Zealand start-up.

Mint Innovation pulls precious metals from disused technology.

Now, it is expanding with a new biometallurgy plant in East Tamaki, Auckland.

The plant is a step towards commercial expansion for Mint’s new technology and will test viability of the company’s plans to build offshore.

Chief executive Will Barker said New Zealanders had a responsibility to manage with e-waste responsibly.

“We have the technology to treat them here and yet we are shipping them off for convenience,” Barker said.

A lot of computer waste ended up in landfills or in large smelters to be destroyed, he said.

Mint Innovation chief executive Will Barker said all New Zealanders had a responsibility to manage e-waste.

“Some of it ends up in the illicit trade and it ends up in developing nations where it is treated and basically creates a humanitarian and environmental disaster.”

Barker said New Zealanders knew they couldn’t just throw waste in the bin – everyone had a drawer full of old technology.

However, many didn’t realise the potential value of what was inside old circuit boards.

“We can take these precious metals from challenging feeds such as printed computer boards,” Barker said.

“When it comes to e-waste alone, approximately 50 million tonnes will be generated worldwide this year, with the metallic value alone estimated to be US$47 billion (NZ$70.3b). This includes US$22b in gold, found primarily in printed circuit boards.”

In December 2017, a United Nations funded report identified Kiwis as large producers of e-waste.

It was estimated by the authors of the report that New Zealand produced 95 000 tonnes of e-waste each year, however there was no information regarding how much of this was recycled and how much went straight to landfills.

Barker said it had been “a hard road” to get funding for Mint Innovation’s clean tech however, there were some avenues of support. It does not use cyanide.

In 2018, the company received $5 million investment funding from Callaghan and Movac during its Series A capital raise after developing a method of pulling precious metals from low-grade ores, tailings and electronic waste.

Early funding for the company came from the government’s Waste Minimisation Fund – the pool of money created by the $10-per-tonne fee charged at landfills.

The East Tamaki factory processed e-waste by the tonne, allowing the company to validate the technology for future development.

“In New Zealand, there is probably a tonne of waste available a day and this plant lets us work through that process,” he said.

“It is a stepping stone, a demonstration facility to allow us to demonstrate what we can do at this scale. The next stage for us is to deploy this technology commercially around the world.”

Barker believed one of the keys to this technology was the ability to scale up and down, allowing the company to set up a plant in anywhere in the world and address the size of the e-waste problem of that location rather than shipping it elsewhere.

“The good thing about gold is that it has some serious value so you are able to do this on an economic basis and incentivise people to collect their own rubbish.”

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