Home Economics The United Nations Doesn't Know The Difference Between Dirt And Ore

The United Nations Doesn’t Know The Difference Between Dirt And Ore



The United Nations tells us that there’s $57 billion of value in all the lovely metals tied up in electronic waste. The United Nations is spouting rubbish for they’re failing to note the difference between dirt and ore – something fairly important if you want to talk about metals and all that.

The report is here. The Guardian’s take here.

At least $10bn (£7.9bn) worth of gold, platinum and other precious metals are dumped every year in the growing mountain of electronic waste that is polluting the planet, according to a new UN report.

The $57 billion is the value of all metals in there, copper, iron and so on as well. The basic problem here is not having a clue of the subject under discussion.

The mining world – metals if you prefer, geology to be posh – makes a basic distinction. There’s dirt and there’s ore. Your back garden is made up of the same 92 elements that everything that hasn’t been through a nuclear reactor is made up of. That’s all there are, those 92, they make everything and everything is made of them.

We can indeed come by your back garden and extract some gold, some uranium, a bit more copper, very little helium and lots and lots of iron and silicon. However, it will cost us more to do this than the value of the elements we extract. That’s why we tend to use plants in our back gardens as they are specialised machines designed to extract certain of the useful elements while leaving much of the dirt right where it is.

Ore is also made up of those 92 elements. We go mining for iron and there will be some helium in there – not a lot, but some – and also uranium, silicon, copper, gold and so on. What makes that mountain over there iron ore is that the value of the iron we can extract is higher than the cost of doing the extraction. The same is true of that other mountain over there becoming copper ore, a specific stream of natural gas becoming an ore for helium and so on.

The difference between dirt and ore is that ore has a positive value for the target element after the costs of extraction are taken into account. A negative value means it’s dirt.

So, the UN says there’s that $57 billion in value. They’re lying. Or perhaps too stupid to know they’re lying. For as they say this can be extracted, sure it can. And big and lovely systems have to be built to make it economic – perhaps economic that is – to do the extraction. And thus, as they themselves are pointing out, the cost of doing the extracting is higher than the value of what is extracted. It’s not ore, it’s dirt. It’s not $57 billion of value it’s some negative value.

So, ignore what they say about the value of recycling then because they’re not able to get the very basics of the subject correct.

One further point to note for here’s today’s attempt at mindgargling idiocy:

Libby Peake from the thinktank Green Alliance said: “The ever-growing mountain of e-waste documented in this report represents a wholly preventable global scandal.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she said. “Products could be designed to last, to be repaired and, just as crucially, to be upgraded. Ensuring the system keeps electronic products in circulation would create hundreds of thousands of jobs … There’s no excuse for leaving this scandal unaddressed.”

Jobs are a cost of doing something Honey, not a benefit. So your justification of this is that it will be even more expensive by hundreds of thousands of jobs?



  1. The same idea was abroad in the 19th Century. All those colliery slag heaps contained gold which could be extracted. Some mine owners and investors fell for it and lost a lot of money.

    Why is tons of ‘e-waste’ any more ‘polluting’ than the tons of e-stuff all over the Planet in every day use? Just bury it.

  2. Forty years ago it was worth salvaging PC boards from IBMs and DECs and whatever because they had lots of gold in them. The boards clipped straight out of the rack and straight into a smelter and one good-sized board could yield a troy ounce of gold. I made a couple of bob out of that. There is still gold in a modern computer but it has been applied so thinly that a mini-factory sized hosting facility full of redundant ASIC mining rigs I was invited to bid on might only yield an ounce between them.


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