If you’re like most middle-class, Western consumers, you have a couple of old iPhones sitting around in a drawer. A few laptops and maybe an early-generation tablet in a closet, collecting dust. Some televisions in the basement, not being watched. Are all these things just going to sit there … forever? Wouldn’t it be better if you could—hear us out—wear some of these crusty gadgets?

There has yet to be a good answer to the question of how to dispose of the 50 million tons of electronic waste generated each year, or at least how to do it in a manner that does not induce major increases in pollution, with deeply detrimental consequences for both the environment and human health. Most discarded electronics eventually get burned or end up in a landfill, leeching chemicals into the air or ground.

But some creative jewelry-makers are proposing novel ways to turn some of this e-trash into sparkly treasure. Computers, phones, and other modern electronics contain gold, silver, copper, and other metals. Each phone, for example, has about .034 grams of gold in it. According to a 2019 United Nations report, as much as 7 percent of the world’s gold may be sitting in unused electronics. And while these valuable innards have long been basically squandered, an increasing number of jewelers are using gold acquired via “e-mining”—meaning they are being taken from electronics instead of physically mined from the Earth, which represents yet another ecologically devastating enterprise.

Eliza Walter, founder of the Lylie jewelry brand, is one of the jewelers making treasure from so much e-waste. Walter’s pretty rings (including engagement rings made with lab-produced diamonds), bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and even hair pins feature gold that has been obtained from electronics, dental fillings, and other recovered sources. Walter says she has been inspired in this effort by a class trip she took as a high school student, where she learned about gold that came out of landfills.

But it is not just Walter and other small designers making this shift. Pandora, the largest jewelry producer in the world, set a target to ensure that all the gold and silver melded into its popular bangles and charms would come from recycled sources by 2025. The reason is, of course, the appeal of such options for consumers. Jewelry made from recovered, recycled metals resonates strongly with consumers’ preferences for sustainable purchase options. Even if using e-mined metals “started off being a kind of a small consumer-led sort of trend … it’s something that consumers are actually demanding.”

As a further benefit, it allows people to keep up to date in their electronics, and dispose of old, unwanted items, without suffering any guilt about being wasteful or harming the environment. It promises a nearly closed loop, just like the ones that could be decorating consumers’ fingers, wrists, and earlobes.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why would a jewelry company want to use metals recovered from old electronics instead of those newly mined from the earth?
  2. What other consumer industries might move toward using recycled materials, in response to consumer demand? Which recycled materials could you imagine them using?
  3. What are some other ways that jewelry companies could adapt their businesses to become more environmentally sustainable?

Source: Jessica Bumpus, “Your Next Necklace May Have Gold from an Old Phone,” The New York Times, August 29, 2022; “Global E-waste Management Market Report 2022: Decreasing Life Span of Electronic Devices Driving Growth,” Business Wire, September 13, 2022; Emma Woollacott, “E-Waste Mining Could Be Big Business—and Good for the Planet,” BBC News, July 6, 2018; Keith Veronese, “How to Mine for Gold in Your Television Set and Computer Keyboard,” Gizmodo, March 21, 2012; Adam Minter, “The Burning Truth Behind an E-Waste Dump in Africa,” Smithsonian, January 13, 2016; Damian Carrington, “$10bn of Precious Metals Dumped Each Year in Electronic Waste, Says UN,” The Guardian, July 2, 2020; Emily Chan, “Meet the Brands Creating Jewellery from Our Old Smartphones and Laptops,” Vogue UK, June 2, 2022; Rhea Khanna, “Copper Conducts Electricity Better, so Why Do We Use Gold in Electronics?” Science ABC, July 8, 2022