back to article Is your old hardware made of gold, or just DIRT?

So you want the money to pay for the office Christmas party, naturally. We're all told endlessly that all those piles of old electronics and high tech'n'stuff are denuding the planet of valuable metals, so you should be bundling up your kit and sending it off to people like me who will melt it down for the dosh, yes? I'll send …

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Has Platinum dropped in price significantly?

Because last time I weighed in a Catalytic converter I got £50

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Pint

Same here

They were all decent sized ones so don't know what you would get for a Fiesta cat for example, but the 23 I weighed in recently will more than pay for my Christmas party. Even the local travellers round my way will give you £20 each for them if you can't be bothered to go down the scrap merchant yourself.

Lead acid batteries are good for a tenner a piece too.

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So rather than paying for my old hardware to be taken away...

...I can put my 286 in an envelope marked "Cash for Gold"...

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Fascinating article

No idea if you're right or not, but a fascinating read nonetheless.

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Anonymous Coward

"...For everyone forgets just how big the Earth actually is. Six times 10 to the 24 kg, some 2% of it is crust. At 0.001ppm Te in the crust, we've still got 120 million tonnes of Te and we're using 125 tonnes a year..."

Well, that's a crap bit of analysis, isn't it? You have assumed that we can economically mine this stuff from that portion of the earth's crust that is accessible and not covered by cities, oceans, tundra or rainforest.

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Anonymous Coward

@AC 13:11

His point was that we're not going to run out of readily available, easily acquired Te anytime soon by pointing out that we have a supply that's six orders of magnitude greater than annual consumption. Even if 99% is under the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, it's not a problem today. Or soon.

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Fair point, that was also my first thought. However even after considering that, and even after considering that most of the crust is inaccessibly deep, there's still plenty around.

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Also doesn't take into consideration the impact on the landscape of all the holes being dug for Te.

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Anonymous Coward

Thanks

Good article, enjoyed it a lot.

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This may be apocryphal

But I heard that someone once bought a defunct Cray-1 for the 'binary sum of $10101.01' and managed to salvage enough gold from the contacts to make a profit.

It /is/ just about possible, but not probably for the likes of thee and me...

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Could be

Don't know about Crays but I do know someone who did that with one of the old Soviet computers.

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Living in the real universe and taking economics and price signals seriously and not something that is a pure invention of unnamed dirty capitalistic exploiters and can be disregarded at will?

So ... rare ... these days.

No crying_bear.jpg? Thumbs up, then.

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Careful there, Citizen.

You're courting summary judgment for reactionism, with careless talk like that.

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Anonymous Coward

Ahem

Economics (and price signals) aren't real - they are cultural constructs with no independent physical existence. Of course, since we are trapped inside our own culture, and mediate our use of resources with economics and pricing, they are hard for us to ignore.

But "hard to ignore" doesn't make them real (in the sense that e.g. a physicist would call real).

They can have real effects of course, but only because we are daft enough to take our own consensual hallucinations seriously.

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WTF?

Spoken like somebody

who's never worked for a living. That's the only place I've ever seen this whole "society is merely a consensual hallucination" stuff taken seriously, at any rate.

But hey, it makes great philosophical justification for the coming red terror, don't you think? Not that any will be needed, except long afterward when the youthful firebrands of today are the old fat cats of tomorrow, feeling their mortality in their bones and realizing that nothing is ever so simple as it looks to a twenty-year-old.

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Pint

Tin solders

Did anyone else have a Stiff Little Fingers moment ?

- that's a fantastic bit of info about the whiskers though (I thought modern electronics were just designed to fail after 366 days as part of some capitalist conspiracy) & an excellent article all in all

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Cash for cartridges

So where can I sell my old toners?

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Drop me a line

Direct at myname@gmail.com and give me an idea of what you use, how much, where you are etc.

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Nice article

Bookmarked for reference later when arguing recycling priorities :)

Thanks Reg for these industry expert articles.

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Good article

Not my kind of read, but I found it very interesting! Thank you, and well done on a good article :)

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Very interesting piece.

I think this is the most interesting article I have ever read on the Reg. Thank you.

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Great article! I have a PDP-11, complete with two whopping great hard drives, but you're not getting your hands on them :-)

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Digging up ore

There must be lots of ore buried in landfill, I'm sure that at some point in the future we'll be digging some of it back up.

As an aside, I'm curious to know whether modern solders are formulated in any way to reduce the occurrence tin whiskers.

interesting article.

@EddieD - surely a Cray-1 is worth something as a museum piece / historical artifact.

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Not really

It was one of the big arguments a few years back when the EU decided we could no longer use lead based solders. All the technical types were shouting "tin whiskers" and the politicians, umm, didn't do anything.

What we used to do to avoid tin whiskers was mix tin with lead....but we can't do that any more.

I know it sounds absurd but it really is true that modern electronics are less reliable as a result of this anti-lead jihad.

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Facepalm

"Anti-lead jihad"

Yes of course - the sole purpose of banning lead was to take away our fun.

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FAIL

Moderation in all things.

Compared to the problems caused by humans in cars—to pick just one example of the health and safety fanatics' double standards—the problems of adding lead to solder in circuit boards were statistically negligible.

Yes, it would be nice if we lived in a perfect world, but we don't. So it makes much more sense to prioritise. You'd think politicians would do that, but nope. It seems we're all suckers for transparent appeals to emotion rather than actual science.

In the past, humans were fine with risk management. Now we're only interested in risk avoidance, but there's no such thing as a zero-risk lifestyle.

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Anonymous Coward

erm?

This exemption [rohs, Annex, item #7] allows the use of lead in solders for “servers, storage and storage array systems, network infrastructure equipment for switching, signaling, transmission as well as network management for telecommunication”.

Or has that exception been repealed?

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Anonymous Coward

because it's not the west's problem

For example <http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2002/02/25/computer-waste.htm> and many others.

Moderation is fine if other people are suffering, innit.

BTW, and idea how long this crap + general heavy metal pollution will be killing people for? cos I'm not sure.

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@brainwong

Licences are already being sold for the mining of some landfill sites.

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The whisker thing

I thought that would be solved by now. We produce completely lead free for over a decade, and I don't think we ever had such a problem.

Actually I believe the main cause of hardware defects are production faults. Like the time when whole batches of electrolytic capacitors were made with a bad electrolyte. Or when improper capacitors were used, unsuitable for the voltages and temperatures in those devices.

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@ The whisker thing

The whiskers don't pop up overnight, odds are the things produced a decade ago are, right now, growing longer and longer whiskers that will eventually short out if the lead pitch is tight enough and the gear is still in service at that point.

Production faults would have to include use of lead solder with equipment not refined enough for it, or design guesswork that didn't. Whole batches of capacitors with bad electrolyte is more of a beancounter induced defect, strangling the build budget till decent name brand Japanese capacitors can't be used which largely avoided the problem... any engineer would highly prefer using middle shelf if not top shelf parts instead if it weren't for the budgetary restraints.

Improper capacitor use is very rare. You almost never see a cap rated for lower voltage than seen in the circuit and typical caps are rated for 85C in mild applications or 105C if not higher in more demanding ones... significantly lower than actual operation temperatures.

Problem is, they're building devices we expect to have last for years with capacitors rated for 1K to 8K hours of lifespan (usually the lower end on consumer gear) at a fixed set of operating parameters with the engineers having to guesstimate-calculate-derate using voodoo magic to figure out if their less strenuous use will allow a 2K hour rated capacitor to last long enough at low enough cost to offset the warranty replacement or liability costs if it doesn't.

However, the main reason for faults is the rapid advancements in tech. If we weren't changing interfaces, processors, busses, etc every 18 months then once they nailed down a design and ate the R&D costs, they could remain profitable without gambling as much on penny pinching, instead spending more time on quality control and design refinement.

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Lead, Gold, and Apples

I suspect that the "death by tin whiskers" part of the life equation is nicely balanced by the "gold on the connectors so thin it might as well not be there" side. Of course both MSFT and Apple are working on the other side, de-supporting hardware _almost_ as fast as it can wear out. And Canonical seems to be moving that way as well.

Meanwhile the single dumbest financial decision I ever made was to turn down a friend's offer to sell me one of his three Apple I computers for $75. If he did manage to sell them all at that price, though, he was dumber than me.

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@ Lead, Gold, and Apples

Not only is there no balance it is quite the opposite (not sure how you ended up so backwards). In addition to tin whiskers the thinner gold plating would, if anything, further reduce the viable lifespan of a product.

However, it's only in certain scenarios where the gold plating layer makes a difference, when the contact has to withstand a large number of insertion cycles. Otherwise an ultra thin gold layer nicely serves its purpose of keeping away oxidation and eliminating the issue of contact between dissimilar metals. If you only plug in a connector or card a few hundred times it won't make a difference given a properly applied coating and otherwise in-spec mechanical product parameters.

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Happy

But did you know...

that if your business is primarily electronic repair of older kit you are still allowed to use 60/40 solder?

Or indeed if you manufacture things like organ pipes!

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I know...

I repair audio & musical equipment for a living... Most pro gear made until the late nineties/early noughties is basically built for eternity, also thanks to non-lead-free solder :-)

60/40 can still be bought at any electronic parts supplier, no questions asked.

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Unhappy

Printer cartridges

We used to collect toner cartridges for the local air ambulance charity. The outfit that reprocessed them had a list of the ones they recycled and the prices they would pay - anything from 10p to 50p for most of them - plus you needed to save up £10's worth or you got nothing. It wasn't worth the storage space.

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Your getting ripped off if your having to PAY for your old kit to be taken away. I know loads of WEEE compliant asset management companies who will happily come and pick it all up for nowt, and will even pay you for anything that still has market value.

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Anonymous Coward

"Chuck it mate and get some new in."

that, and "recycle where it is economic to do so and do not where it isn't" leads me to question, if that's alright with you.

There might be plenty of nice stuff in the crust, but you seem to have skimmed over the extraction of these metals being (presumably?) an extremely energy intensive process.

Quantities of substance from might be effectively infinite given their recyclability, but energy is axiomatically not recyclable, and our massive use of energy is primarily fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are being used a huge rate and they are finite. (Let's leave out potential ecological costs for the moment)

It seems to me that the cost of recycling (or doing anything really) is intimately tied up with the cost of energy, so what is the true cost of energy?

It seems to me that so far (meaning since the start of the Industrial Revolution) it's been measured as the cost it takes to get it out of the ground. Does this reflect the economic cost of the fuel? It is finite, and we depend on it hugely, so can the cost of electricity at pennies per kilowatt be described as the true cost?

Not being an economist, I'd say no.

If we didn't have ff's than the cost of energy would be (presumably?) vastly higher, so by considering energy as cheap, you can only be considering it in a very short-term; perhaps a couple of centuries (yes?). And we've used up a large chunk of those few centuries (agreed?).

You cannot talk about whether something is economic to do or not, without considering the cost of energy, which you have not, at least in the sense of long-term use; neither the long-term availability of an energy source, nor potential ecological effects (which are uncertain, granted, but uncertainty does not give you licence to ignore).

So, would you please try and make explicit your assumptions the real cost of energy, and having done so, how it affects your calculations. It seems such assumptions are always conveniently implicit.

ta.

(Dashed out at speed, sorry for the repetitions, and anon for the moment)

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Important point

You've hit on one of the very important points underlying the economics of recycling: the energy cost. I didn't go through it because 2,000 words, you know.

We can recycle absolutely anything if we use enough energy. Turn concrete back into cement if we want to. Uses a lot, lot, more energy than baking a bit more of Portland though.

We prefer, by far, to recycle Al rather than make anew for the same reason: recycling saves us almost all of that $900 a tonne cost of 'leccie to turn Al2O3 into Al.

Whether energy is properly priced (social cost of carbon etc) might change a small number of these sorts of decisions at the margin. But for almost all metals the answers are so clear that this doesn't make much difference. Cu, Sn, Al, Fe, Au, Ag, and more, energy required to recycle vastly less than energy (plus effort perhaps) to mine anew. Te, Tb, and so on, mine anew.

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Anonymous Coward

thanks for your reply, but implicit assumptions are not clarified

indeed, with a phrase like " #might# change a #small# number of these sorts of decisions #at the margin# " assumes the outcome you prefer ("and so on, mine anew"). However, reality can't be fooled so we need to make good decisions, which means good data, which means clarity and good answers.

Which are frustratingly hard to get out of economists for some reason - why so?

Bluntly, what is the price of energy you are assuming, and what costs; all costs including future unavailability of a non-renewable, utterly vital (for keeping 7 billion people alive) resource, supplies of which may already have peaked? (omit eco costs for the moment, keep it simple).

So, what, in figures, are your energy cost assumptions that underpin this article, please.

thanks

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Stop

re: "outcome you prefer"

The preferred outcome is to be able to recycle everything at minimal cost, and maximum profit. If Tim could make a profit from recycling these marginal materials, he would.

As with any finite resource, as the supply dwindles, the price will go up. Materials that were not viably recyclable will become more viable. Unlike fossil fuels, these metals are rarely burnt off, they just get harder to get at as we move them around (with the exception of the stuff we fling into space).

Tim wants to recycle everything he *profitably* can, thus the emphasis on economics. You can be sure, even if Tim has let some of the marginal opportunities pass by, where there is a buck to be made, people will try to make it.

Given the volatility of the price of metals/energy, it would be pointless to quantify the numbers any further than a rough ratio. (for example, what will be the cost of moving XKg of Y metal Z distance in a months time? Ill bet it will be more than today)

As for "utterly vital" resources, you infer fossil fuels ("may already have peaked"), but this is simply the current cheapest way of doing things, *when* this is no longer the case, the *many* other options will be used, not because we will have run out, but because there will be cheaper alternatives.

note: I don't mean cheaper than *now*, I mean cheaper than the future sky high oil price at which solar/wind/whatever becomes competitive without subsidy. The price of energy will continue to go up while people are still having babies.

I think it is worth re-iterating that Tim (the author of the article) recycles as a business, and any assumptions he has made are either

a) not assumptions, but information that the origin of which could be commercially sensitive (such as his profit margin)

b) Discovered by hard won experience.

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Anonymous Coward

@Glen 1

> recycle everything at minimal cost, and maximum profit

I don't argue, just that my question was, what is defined as 'minimal cost'? If I rob from others to buy something I fancy then I've certainly minimised *my* cost, but not the cost to society.

If I deprive the next generation of energy because I want to drive a 4X4 the size of a small van, that seems to me to be - possibly - an equivalent theft, but done across time.

> Given the volatility of the price of metals/energy, it would be pointless to quantify the numbers any further than a rough ratio

If we take the immediate price of energy, as defined by the cost of digging it out of the ground and shipping it to us, then yes. Question is - again - does this reflect the true cost to society over a period of time that is longer than a few months.

> As for "utterly vital" resources, you infer fossil fuels ("may already have peaked"), but this is simply the current cheapest way of doing things, *when* this is no longer the case, the *many* other options will be used, not because we will have run out, but because there will be cheaper alternatives / note: I don't mean cheaper than *now*, I mean cheaper than the future sky high oil price at which solar/wind/whatever becomes competitive without subsidy. The price of energy will continue to go up while people are still having babies.

But that means energy will be *MORE EXPENSIVE* than it is now. Possibly by a large amount, thus society may have to revert to lower living standards, or there may be resource wars which seriously prune the human race down, hence my ask to Mr. Worstall to clarify what he meant by 'economically viable'. Which he's left strangely unanswered.

a) [any assumptions he has made are either] not assumptions, but information that the origin of which could be commercially sensitive (such as his profit margin) [or] b) Discovered by hard won experience.

Totally missing the point. I'm not asking about his immediate business, but to let us know how energy use was measured so as to define his decision that something was economically viable (potentially) in the context of a sustainable society and (potentially) over some period of time, when taking into account the (potential) shortage of immensely concentrated source of energy. The key is in the words 'potentially'.

I'll put it in simpler terms: if you have children, what kind of lives do you want them to have?

I'm really getting the impression that most economists are driven by a fusion of wishful thinking and dogma. If Mr. Worstall will lay out his assumptions on the cost of energy, I'll gladly reconsider. I await, without much hope, his feedback.

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@AC

economics is rarely concerned with sustainability (look at how we got into the credit crunch)

While I agree that a sustainable approach would be preferable, until any such approach can compete on cost, it will only succeed with subsidies (such as FiTs). Anywhere such subsidies aren't available will continue with the unsustainable model.

You ask about cost in terms of stealing from our children. To even guess, would require us to predict the next 30/60/100 odd years of the metals/energy markets. Other than 'probably more expensive' any attempt at quantifying this (as you ask), would simply be guessing, and not in the scope of the original article.

>Having to revert to a lower standard of living

Indeed, but that is a relative term. The 4x4 stealing resources across time that you mention, *is a part* of some peoples standard of living, which they will have to forego to achieve this utopian sustainable future, or pay an ever increasing premium (as they already do), or move to electricity. (which could come from whatever the energy source of the day is).

Yes, energy will be more expensive. To the point where if you buy an petrol tanker and park it somewhere safe, you will probably get a better return in a year than if you had left the money in the bank.

The point I'm trying to make is that energy is currently ridiculously cheap compared to what it will be in the near future. With the ever increasing demand for oil, it is a case of use it or lose it, because someone *will* use it. A similar thing will then happen with nuclear power. It wont be until oil and Uranium run out that it will be in big business' interest to *seriously* pursue more sustainable forms of power. (how expensive does energy have to be before mining Helium3 on the moon becomes cost effective?)

No amount of solar/wind/whatever will stop the oil from running out. The only defence is to not need oil/plastics any more...

Of course, the countries/companies that are doing such sustainable R&D *now* will have a competitive advantage, but this may not be evident for 30/60/100 years. That makes it a *much* harder sell to the taxpayers/shareholders (except maybe in things like data centres, where most of the operating cost is energy).

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Anonymous Coward

@Glen 1

> economics is rarely concerned with sustainability (look at how we got into the credit crunch)

Kind of says everything about economics, doesn't it? Without rationality all that remains is a religion. Not what I want to live under the influence of.

> While I agree that a sustainable approach would be preferable...

preferable to what? an unsustainable approach? which means what, for the human race? Surely you're trolling, this is just too weird.

> You ask about cost in terms of stealing from our children. [...] , and not in the scope of the original article.

I wanted that to be made explicit. It was not. That was the point.

> The 4x4 stealing resources across time that you mention, *is a part* of some peoples standard of living, which they will have to forego

Umm, 4x4s hmm... standard of living is about a number of things, starting from having food and shelter. I really don't think you have any idea about dearth. Here's a clue <http://canadaonline.about.com/od/historyphotos/ig/Great-Depression-Canada/Men-Crowded-Into-a-Room-.htm> It's not the worst photo I've seen, and it's within living memory. Jesus, forgoing 4x4s... are you an economist too?

> The point I'm trying to make is that energy is currently ridiculously cheap compared to what it will be in the near future.

Yes, this was my concern.

> With the ever increasing demand for oil, it is a case of use it or lose it, because someone *will* use it.

Now that is a valid issue, but not pehaps a reason to squander it but invest it wisely... much as a sane economist might propose. But a valid point.

> mining Helium3 on the moon ...

He3 is not an energy source AFAIK so I don't get you.

> The only defence is to not need oil/plastics any more...

Bloody hell, you still don't get it, our energy dependency vastly outweighs our plastic production. Banish the latter and you'd barrely dent the former. Do you actually know how much oil is used worldwide, daily?

It's a bit like you can't hear what I'm saying. If the oil runs out then *my* worry is a large majority of the human race may die off, messily, and within our otherwise natural lifetimes. However I present it, you still don't get it! And neither does Mr. Worstall.

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Megaphone

Catalytic Converters In Small Quantities

Actually, in many places catalytic converters are an exception to the economy of scale example in the article.

Yes you can often clip the catalytic converter off a single car and sell it. I made $140 USD selling one in the states for the precious metal salvage, which is ironically more than a junkyard would've given me if I'd signed the whole car to them for salvage with lots of viable parts on it (sneaky bastards!).

That was an old car with original cat though, today a new or aftermarket cat will fetch only $40 USD or so due to smaller size and more efficient, modern honeycomb plating tech allowing for less precious metal.

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Metal

We sometimes do pretty well stripping out and separating the copper, aluminum and (to a much lesser extent) steel from the old lab equipment. In the grand scheme of things, it's a toss up whether it's worth it,but the last time, for a couple hours of stripping stuff down and a short drive we managed about $900USD.

The stripping down part makes a horrible mess though.

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PJD

Ball mill

I used to work as a CIP gold mill operator back in the day. What happens if you run ewaste through a ball mill (eg http://tinyurl.com/3jfertk) same as any other ore? Under 2g/ton was economic in unblasted dirt in the '90s when the gold price was < USD$300/oz; I can't imagine that ewaste is that low/ton, and the gold price is over 5 times higher now..

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Nostalgia

Just to illustrate Tim's point. I remember happy days in the 1980s when me and my mates were scrapping computers built in the 1970s, each with 1500+ lovely green Amphenol connectors + circuit boards in them. Each pair (connector+board) contained 0.5 gram of gold.

Sadly none of them are left (I keep an eye out just in case).

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