A new technique for recovering precious metals from electronic waste products

What happens to those old cell phones that we no longer use or the computers, tablets, or the electronic and other equipment from hospitals? Mostly they end up in open landfills with a disastrous impact on the environment. But one company in the Italian province of Cremona has developed a clever system for recovering and refining the gold, silver, platinum, palladium and other precious elements contained in these devices. A recent accord has also been struck with the Vatican. Gottardi: with the

Cecilia Seppia

39-year-old Alberto Tosoni, of Swiss and Italian roots, is the engineering “father” of this ambitious metal recovery and refining project at the Spino d’Adda facility in the province of Cremona. “When I came up with this idea in 2012, I was taken for a fool, a lunatic, but I went straight for it because I knew there was more to it than what was in my head,” he tells us.

“At the time, I was studying engineering at the Milan Polytechnic; my grandfather had a laboratory that refined waste from goldsmithing products, and I was fascinated by every step of the process. Then I learned about those new, many goldmines and other noble metals that perhaps the world wasn’t aware of. I’m talking about the piles of electronic waste that mankind has been producing for decades now at a frightening rate: cell phones, computers, batteries, industrial waste, machinery used in laboratories, hospitals, and any other instrument that contains an electronic board, so I thought of a recovery system that would not devastate the environment, would not pollute, and would not exploit workers, as is still the case instead in so many parts of the planet, and I launched myself into this process of building an industrial spin-off that later gave birth to Ecomet Refining.” 

All of the material that comes to Ecomet is weighed and sorted by expert staff
All of the material that comes to Ecomet is weighed and sorted by expert staff

The facility and the recovery and refining process

We are talking about the largest industrial plant in Italy, the only one to exist in Europe, and the only one that currently treats two thousand tons of waste per year in a totally sustainable way with very little use of energy, without dispersion of dangerous or polluting substances into the atmosphere. One ton of these materials contains about 300 kg of metals that are recovered and another 700 kg used as a melting material for copper foundries or for bitumen companies to make asphalt: nothing is lost! 

“By now we receive material from all over the world,” explains Mattia Gottardi, a partner in the initiative and Ecomet’s institutional relations manager.

“This is precisely why a new plant 10 times bigger is being built in Treviglio in order to process 20 thousand tons per year. One of the strangest things that has been processed is a submarine battery, but everything comes in here, and one of the most delicate stages is precisely the sorting, the sorting of materials that is done by hand. At the beginning, there is always a radiometric survey, weight detection, visual verification of the physical state. The second step consists of shredding and preparation for melting during which the chemical composition is also checked.

“Behind this project, however, there is a unique technology in Italy regarding melting that allows materials of all kinds to be melted directly, respecting the environmental limits of the law and avoiding other steps that could cause dispersion of the materials to be recovered: in fact, the furnace operates at a temperature of 1500 degrees and therefore does not release those dioxins that usually develop in incinerators.

“Another step is the analysis of the precious metals; then there is the refining and finally the actual smelting, which makes it possible to obtain gold, silver, platinum, and palladium in a pure form that is directly marketable. 99.9 percent of these materials are recovered. Just think that from a ton of old cell phones - about 5,000 – some 250 to 300 grams of gold are gleaned, so quite a gain if we think of the market value! And remember, this electronic waste comprises between 6 and 8 percent of the world’s gold reserves.”

Tons of electronic waste from all over the world are delivered to the facility each day
Tons of electronic waste from all over the world are delivered to the facility each day

Against the throw-away culture

“We can say that the Spino d’Adda plant basically anticipated the Pope’s words in Laudato si' and the great message he wanted to convey to the world by appealing to the collective conscience,” Gottardi says, “but this document has given us even more impetus to continue in this direction.

“The very concept of recovery that we apply in person helps to check that rampant throw-away culture denounced by Francis in which things and people are put on the same plane. It is not true that everything that is not needed or that’s no longer useful must be thrown away.

“Another crucial point is pollution. There are metals that can release pollutants into the ground for years: think of the lithium that smartphone batteries are made of.

“And then there is the issue of the exploitation of miners, in areas of the world that are poor but rich in gold deposits, for example; these people work in dramatic conditions, without fair wages, without any security, in close contact with chemicals that are harmful to their health, digging in the belly of the earth to bring to light what will then perhaps be turned into an earring or a bracelet sold in a boutique in the West for hundreds, thousands of euros. And this is no longer acceptable.

“We have to learn to consume, responsibly and conscientiously,  what has already come from the earth because sooner or later even these resources will run out and we will be - indeed we are already – fully indebted ecologically. The resources are there, the technology is there too, but we can no longer turn our faces away and pretend that nothing is happening. There are places that are open dumps of technological waste: 85 percent of this waste is in Africa, which is already battered by countless plagues. There are city-sized landfills in Nigeria where technological waste is set on fire perhaps to retrieve copper wire to sell, with toxic clouds persisting for weeks and releasing substances that destroy the ecosystem of those areas for hundreds or thousands of years.

“In recent times, there’s been a rapprochement with big companies that are flying the banner of sustainability, and our goal is to be able to bring Ecomet’s technology everywhere. Many companies have also realized the importance of showing their customers that they are fully engaged in waste recovery of this kind - it’s the so-called green turning point, which is obviously good for the environment but also attracts profits.”

Inside the Spino d’Adda facility
Inside the Spino d’Adda facility

The agreement with the Vatican Governorate

The echo of Francis’ words, the seven goals of Laudato si', taking into consideration the common good and not money, have prompted Ecomet’s top management to strike agreements with the Governorate of the Vatican City State as well.

“Recently,” Gottardi adds, “we also approached the Holy See to present our idea of environmental sustainability and the reception was really good. We both thought of extending this project to schools, church institutions, hospitals, missionary centers, dioceses, congregations, and religious orders, wherever the Church is present, in order to raise awareness about the collection of these resources that would otherwise be wasted and then to recover them, setting in motion a virtuous economic circle.

“We have also thought about setting up collection points specifically for technological materials, which we do not even know how to dispose of today among the differentiated waste bins, either inside the Leonine Walls or outside, in the surrounding areas.

“It was immediately clear to us: to process these materials and give back resources to do good by also spreading a different culture and awareness regarding environmental issues, which by the way, is more present and alive in young people than in adults. And the Pope knows this, precisely because the younger generations are more open to change. After a discussion with Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Oriental Churches, and Dr. Torrini, we came to an agreement and we have already received a consignment of several tons from Vatican City: mostly, but not just discarded computers and electronic material that Ecomet will sort and recover. This is a pilot project that we hope will soon be extended to other areas. The capillarity of the Church’s network is also an advantage from the point of view of environmental education and information on practices that are still unfamiliar.”

A positive and circular economy, dedicated collection points, and giving resources back to the poor are at the heart of Ecomet’s agreement with the Vatican which is already at the forefront of waste recycling, after the creation of its own dedicated ecological recycling station where organic waste is also collected, a virtuous example to be exported to other states.

“St. Peter’s Square, the Gardens, the Museums are visited every day by thousands of pilgrims who come from all over the world and who, in addition to art, history, and religious value, appreciate the care, the decorum of the spaces, the cleanliness and also precisely the innovation from the point of view of waste disposal. Around the streets of Rome or other Italian cities, one does not find containers for the disposal of technological materials that regularly end up in the bins for aluminum or plastic with no thought given to the resources they contain. The Papal State in this regard could set an example by also conveying an unfamiliar message – one that is valuable for the environment.

“Whenever we talk about this ethically-flavored technology to leading companies or multinationals with stellar sales,” Ecomet’s representative concludes, “we see in the faces of executives a certain amazement and great interest, and we realize that we have done something important and right... And to think that in the beginning, not everyone understood the scope of this project; often Tosoni heard people say he was crazy, as if he was seeking the philosopher’s stone. 

“In reality, he managed to realize an idea that can change the world and that is more urgent than ever to safeguard our Common Home.”

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25 October 2022, 10:17