Thinking of throwing out your old cell phone? Think again. Maybe you should mine it first for gold, silver, copper and a host of other metals embedded in the electronics - many of which hit near-record prices.
It's called "urban mining", scavenging through the scrap metal in old electronic products in search of such gems as iridium and gold, and it is a growth industry around the world as metal prices skyrocket.
The materials recovered are reused in new electronics parts and the gold and other precious metals are melted down and sold as ingots to jewelers and investors as well as back to manufacturers who use gold in the circuit boards of mobile phones because gold conducts electricity even better than copper.
"It can be precious or minor metals, we want to recycle whatever we can," said Tadahiko Sekigawa, president of Eco-System Recycling Co.
A ton of ore from a gold mine produces just 5 grams of gold on average, whereas a ton of discarded mobile phones can yield 150 grams or more, according to a study by Yokohama Metal Co Ltd, another recycling firm.
The same volume of discarded mobile phones also contains around 100 kg of copper and 3 kg of silver, among other metals.
Recycling has gained importance as metal prices hit record highs. Gold is trading at around $890 an ounce, after hitting a historic high of $1,030.80 in March.
Copper and tin are also around record highs and silver prices are well above long-term averages.
Recycling electronics makes sense for Japan which has few natural resources to feed its huge electronics industry but does have tens of millions of old cell phones and other obsolete consumer electronic gadgets thrown away every year.
"To some it's just a mountain of garbage, but for others it's a gold mine," said Nozomu Yamanaka, manager of the Eco-Systems recycling plant where mounds of discarded cell phones and other electronics gadgets are taken apart for their metal value.
At the factory in Honjo, 80 km southwest of Tokyo, 34-year-old Susumu Arai harvests some of that bounty.
A ribbon of molten gold flows into a mould where it sizzles and spits fire for a few minutes before solidifying into a dull yellow slab, on its way to becoming a 3 kg gold bar, worth around $90,000 at current prices.
The scrap electronics and other industrial waste is first sorted and dismantled by hand. It is then immersed in chemicals to dissolve unwanted materials and the remaining metal is refined.
Eco-System, established 20 years ago near Tokyo, typically produces about 200-300 kg of gold bars a month with a 99.99 percent purity, worth about $5.9 million to $8.8 million.
That's about the same output as a small gold mine.
But despite growing interest in the environment and recycling, the industry struggles to get enough old mobile phones to feed its recycling plants.
Japan's 128 million population uses their cell phones for an average of two years and eight months.
That's a lot of cell phones discarded every year, yet only 10-20 percent are recycled as people often opt to store them in their cupboards due to concerns about their personal data on their phones, said Yoshinori Yajima, a director at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Only 558 tons of old phones were collected for recycling in the year to March 2007, down a third from three years earlier, industry figures show.
（英语点津 Celene 编辑）
About the broadcaster:
Bernice Chan is a foreign expert at China Daily Website. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Bernice has written for newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong and most recently worked as a broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, producing current affairs shows and documentaries