It’s no secret that gold mining has a hugely detrimental impact on the planet. The industry has a large carbon footprint and can involve the destruction of crucial ecosystems, as well as polluting the environment with toxic chemicals such as mercury and cyanide. There’s a whole host of social issues, too, including the exploitation of workers and displacement of local communities.
That’s why an increasing number of jewellery brands are looking at recycled alternatives, including gold that’s recovered from electronic waste, or e-waste. With so many of our discarded smartphones and laptops ending up in landfill, there’s a literal goldmine out there—thanks to the precious metals used in the circuit boards of our electronic devices.
“There’s this amazing statistic that if you were to mine one tonne of earth, you’d get a yield of about 9 grams of gold,” Eliza Walter, founder of Lylie, tells Vogue. “If you were to do the same with one tonne of e-waste, you’d get a yield of 300 grams of gold. So there’s huge potential there.”
Walter launched her sustainably-minded jewellery label back in 2017, after being inspired by a school trip she went on years ago. “When I was 16 and studying design, I was taken to a foundry in Melton Mowbray,” she recalls. “This amazing man Peter, who had just set it up, gave us this incredible introduction and [told us], ‘The future of gold mining is not in the Earth’s core; it is in our landfill sites.’ I guess that idea just really stuck in my head.”
For Walter, it’s a no-brainer to make use of the vast amount of electronic devices we throw away. “I was always aware that we go through electronics so quickly, and [thinking about] what happens to them afterwards,” the designer says. “A lot of e-waste at the moment is being shipped [to places like] the west coast of Africa. This overconsumption of [electronic devices] is such a problem.”
Given that seven per cent of the world’s gold is currently sitting in disused electronics, it’s clear why a growing number of jewellery brands are seeing e-waste as an important resource. “It’s a phenomenal [amount], so quite why we keep taking [gold] out of the ground is beyond me,” Sean Millard, chief growth officer at the Royal Mint—which has just released its first jewellery collection made from e-waste—says. “We produce 50 million tonnes of electronic waste a year. What we’re doing is recovering that and producing our jewellery end-to-end in the UK.”
Using e-waste can also help engage more customers in finding out where their jewellery is actually coming from. “I find it really exciting,” Dominic Jones, creative director of the Royal Mint, says. “This is a completely new stream of material. It’s not just recycling; it’s preserving [precious metals].”
That storytelling aspect is crucial to French company Courbet, too. “From an ecological point of view, recycled gold is the best option [as] two-thirds of the planet’s gold has already been extracted,” Charlotte Daehn, the brand’s director of communications and head of corporate social responsibility, comments. “Considering we use lab-grown diamonds for our jewellery, we wanted to have a high-tech image for our gold as well.”
Being able to offer customers transparency over the whole supply chain is another advantage of using recovered electronics. “[When] recycling jewellery, most of the time you don’t know where the jewellery is coming from and there is no traceability,” Daehn explains. “The chain of custody is really important for Courbet because we want to know the origin of every material that we use.”
With major brands like Pandora (which has set a target of using 100 per cent recycled silver and gold by 2025), also now embracing e-waste, it’s clear that it’s the future for an industry that’s increasingly looking to become more sustainable. “Not enough e-waste is being recycled,” Mads Twomey-Madsen, vice president of sustainability at Pandora, concludes. “We want to change that and build a more circular luxury industry.”