Where there’s muck there’s brass: the case for E-Waste

Professor Kevin Haines
April 2022

Did you know: The UK is one of the largest producers of household e-waste in the world.

The Earth is running out of resources. Global population already exceeds the capacity of the Earth to sustain human life by a factor of 1.5. As the Earth’s resources become increasingly depleted, not just the urgency but the necessity to reduce, reuse and recycle becomes increasingly manifest. This manifestation is not just cognitive, it is also financial.

It was the English naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) that effectively coined the term ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’ (“Muck and money go together”). As far as we can tell, however, the actual term ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’ was first reported (in the Leeds and Yorkshire Mercury, September 1907) to be used by an MP (Mr V. Grayson) in reference to a description of Oldham, although he reportedly continued “It is against this type of profit-grinding Philistine that everyone with artistic perceptions must strenuously fight.”


There may not be a huge amount of actual brass in E-Waste, but there are significant and useful amounts of precious and increasingly scarce metals (as well as other recyclable materials). E-waste or Electronic waste describes the (predominantly) precious metals that can be recovered from electronic devices and the processing units or components they require to function. These increasingly precious metals include: lead, copper, zinc, beryllium, nickel, lithium, aluminium, chrome, gold, magnesium, silver and gallium etc. As the Earth’s resources of these metals becomes increasingly scarce (and expensive to retrieve), so the economic case for the recovery and reuse of precious metals from discarded electronic devices and appliances increases. The United Nations Environment Programme, for example, estimates that up to 7% of the World’s gold may be held in appliances and devices, with over 100 times more gold in a tonne of E-waste than there is in a tonne of ore!

Although the amount of precious metals in any one device or appliance is tiny, the sheer volume of E-waste is vast. The World Economic Forum, in 2019, stated that E-waste was the fastest growing waste stream globally: highlighting that in 2018 as much as 50 million tonnes of E-waste was produced, with a value of over M$60 annually. This figure has grown to nearly 60 million tonnes globally in 2021. In reality, of course, E-waste comprises more than just metals and is categorised into six types: ferrous metals (i.e. those containing iron), non-ferrous metals, plastics, glass, pollutants and others. It is, however, the precious (predominantly non-ferrous) metals that have the greatest commercial value – although recycling and reuse of a range of E-wastes is possible.

Did you know: based on World Bank figures, to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 it will require: 34 million metric tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead, 50 million tons of zinc, 162 million tons of aluminium and 5 billion tons of iron, plus an additional 40 million tonnes of lithium required for energy storage batteries (an increase of nearly 3,000%). For neodymium - an essential element in wind turbines that I had never heard of before - extraction will need to rise by nearly 35 percent over current levels.

For some, therefore, recycling and reusing the components of devices and appliances is the most effective solution to two pressing problems: 1- the (increasing) shortage of raw materials (and the increasing cost of production) and 2 – the sheer growth in E-waste. In addition to financial gain, the stated benefits of recycling and reusing E-waste include:

  • preservation of natural resources (no need for additional mining, thereby reducing collateral harms: reduction of hazardous waste, less air and water pollution, reduced negative social consequences),
  • reduced greenhouse gas production (produced by manufacturing new products),
  • the re-recyclability and re-reusability of many E-waste materials (i.e. enhanced circularity in the E-waste industry).

Plus, it is suggested, that recycling and reusing E-waste sets up a virtuous circle whereby manufacturers produce more goods that are more readily recycled and reused, more sustainable, less environmentally demanding or damaging thereby reducing the dangers to human health. Furthermore, it has been claimed that recycling is a lost art in the consumerist West, but that it is more widely practiced in developing countries and that refurbishing, recycling and reusing is a path to development and increased economic well-being, providing employment for many.

Did you know: According to a study by Greenpeace; 13 million tons of batteries from electric vehicles will reach the end of their life between 2021 and 2030.

Oldham: Gateway to the Pennines

The original reference to Oldham above was, of course, not meant in a complimentary manner (the city having suffered the many negative consequences of industrialisation and, indeed, post-industrialisation – not characteristic of the city today). Where there is muck there is also the potential for environmental harms (even disasters) and widespread human misery (however one would wish to define such).

Despite the claimed economic and social advantages of recycling E-waste in developing countries – where much of the E-waste produced in the West ends up, there are some obvious disadvantages and negative aspects to the practice of shipping Western E-waste to developing countries. For example:

  • The act of shipping 50 million tonnes (potentially growing to 120 million tonnes by 2050) of E-waste annually half-way around the World is an inherently environmentally harmful activity.
  • There is the potential for greenwashing and creating the impression for consumers that E-waste is being recycled when, in fact, it is shipped to developing countries and dumped into landfill (one study showed that, in 2003, up to 90% of shipped E-waste ended up in landfill in developing countries).

Did you know: dealing efficiently and effectively with E-waste is not only an essential component a global just transition, it is also a critical factor in achieving a sustainable energy transition.

  • Many E-waste components contain potentially (and extremely) harmful materials. If handled improperly, as is more likely in unregulated industries, significant harm can be done to people, their communities and the environment.

Did you know: over half the cost of an EV battery is made up of precious metals: Lithium, Cobalt, Nickel and Manganese.

  • Increased regulation of E-waste in the West creates an economic disincentive to process electronic goods prior to export, thus increasing the export of unscreened E-waste that avoids costly removal of difficult/expensive to remove/dispose of items.
  • The methods used for the extraction and processing of E-waste, particularly in poorly regulated markets, are more wasteful and, indeed, harmful to workers and the environment than the available ‘best practice’. For example, a prevalent and expedient method for extracting precious metals is to simply burn off plastics and non-valuable metals. This method releases carcinogens and pathogens into the air and the residue from fires is disposed of into waterways that feed local supplies or end up in the ocean.

Did you know: there is a global shortage of Lithium, but extracting the mineral from rock uses approximately two million tonnes of water for one tonne of Lithium and produces 15 tonnes of carbon. Future sustainability and achieving net-zero carbon targets requires more, not less, recovery, recycling and reuse.

  • Living close to or near by E-waste recycling sites can expose residents to environmental contaminants or contaminated food and/or water; through unwitting or unavoidable inhalation, ingestion or dermal contact. The consequences of such exposure can include: poor physical and mental health as well as DNA mutations.
  • Children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks of E-waste pollution. One study, in china, found children were eight times more at risk of negative health outcomes than adults exposed to E-waste pollution.

Did you know: In the face of global water insecurity, it takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce a single ton of lithium.

  • Bitcoin mining has contributed significantly to E-waste, with the average Bitcoin transaction creating 272 grams of E-waste (a total of over 112 million grams of E-waste in 2020), according to one study. Another study estimates that the Bitcoin network generates over 30 metric kilotons of E-waste annually – more than that generated by the Netherlands!
  • E-waste also raises additional concerns with data security. This not only relates to Bitcoin, but also to the personal, financial and social data we hold on phones and laptops as well as commercially valuable information. Data theft is relatively easy, even if users delete information such as bank details, passwords etc. E-waste is not only a literal gold mine, it is a data gold mine!


The International Energy Agency estimates that getting to net zero by 2040 will require a six-fold increase in mineral input. Key metals, such as lithium, are predicted to see growth rates of over 40 times, with nickel and cobalt demand growing by a factor of 20. Demand is soaring, the price of lithium in February 2021 reached an all-time high of $50,000 per tonne (up from $10,000 a year earlier). Yet, currently only around 20% of E-waste is recycled – the remaining 80% either incinerated or dumped in landfill. It has been estimated that the in-excess of 50 million tonnes of E-waste produced in a year is the equivalent to all the commercial aircraft ever built or some 4,500 Eiffel Towers – each year!

Did you know: in Europe currently only 22% of cobalt, 16% of nickel, 12% of aluminium and 8% of manganese are recycled.

The International Telecommunication Union is the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies. The highest policy making body of the ITU, the Plenipotentiary Conference, established targets in 2018 relating to E-waste:

  • By 2023, increase the global E-waste recycling rate to 30%
  • By 2023, raise the percentage of countries with an E-waste legislation to 50%

Did you know: Around 50,000 tons of batteries that are expected to be discarded from 2027; a figure that could reach 700,000 tons in 2035.

We are, it seems, a long way off meeting these targets; despite the significant scope for growth within the E-waste industry, the lessons learnt from poor practice and the potential financial rewards. Progress is slow, in practice and in the long-anticipated EU regulations for battery (re)production. Tackling global E-waste also falls under a number of the Sustainable Development Goals (notably, 3, 8, 9, 11, 12 and 17) and has the, as yet unrealised, potential to meet sustainability targets for companies and investors in the West, whilst contributing positively to global improvements in commercial, social and environmental spheres. The big question is: do we have the energy?

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