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Save the Cobalt!

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Save the Cobalt!

Municipal recycling programs need serious reevaluation. November 30, 2021
Infrastructure and energy

Now we learn that Hunter Biden, in addition to his dabblings as an artist and Ukraine oil investor, also appears to have helped a Chinese conglomerate gain full control of a major cobalt mining area in the Congo. In 2013, he was brought in, for some reason, as a founding investor in a Chinese private equity firm, which, three years later, purchased a major Congo cobalt deposit, one of the world’s largest, from its American owners.

Hunter had apparently not gotten the memo from his father that the United States was in competition with Beijing to “win the 21st century,” as Biden the elder later told Congress. Cobalt, it turns, out is at the center of that struggle, the way oil was in the last century. A “transition” metal for which companies around the world are competing, cobalt is to electronics and e-vehicle batteries what oil is to gas-powered cars.

But even as Hunter Biden was helping the Chinese get their hands on more of it, households across the U.S. were throwing it out. That’s because cobalt is found in much of what we toss in the garbage—especially cellphones—and is not recovered and recycled, even as New York and cities across the country spend scarce resources to pick up glass, paper, and plastic, materials far less valuable, even worthless. Households across the city and the U.S. dutifully put out blue bins filled with these items. It may feel good to do so, but as an economic matter, it’s become a waste of time.

Such materials were once exported to be used in manufacturing abroad—mainly in China. But the Communist Party slammed the door on American trash in 2017, in what it subtly called Operation National Sword. As a result, when one calculates the full cost of current recycling programs—including the cost of pickup—the programs are money-losers for cities. Hundreds of city governments have now scrapped these programs. Others continue on unexamined autopilot.

We are recycling the wrong things and overlooking a literal gold mine—the “e-waste” of computers, iPhones, video cameras, DVD players, and their hard-drive cousins. A 2020 analysis of the e-waste stream by the Recycling Partnership, which promotes sensible recycling, found no fewer than 56 valuable elements, including 14 rare-earth elements, six platinum-group metals, and 20 critical metals, including gold, silver, palladium and copper. Just one kilogram of e-waste from discarded computer mice, if separated from the general garbage heap, can be worth $168. If hard drives alone are isolated for recovery, they can be worth $464. Yet even as New Yorkers keep putting out their blue containers, the city directs those looking to recycle electronics to drop-off locations such as Best Buy—where they pay a $29 fee for handing over old cellphones. With incentives like that, most people will keep tossing these items in the garbage.

We need to think of our trash as a sort of mine, from which we might extract valuable materials of strategic importance. This will require new technology. A Department of Energy internal think tank has suggested that a new generation of incinerators could capture ash from trash—and isolate what’s valuable within it. Even the leftover ash could be used, for concrete and asphalt. All this would require infrastructure investment—but the recently passed infrastructure bill included just $275 million in recycling grants to localities. The Recycling Partnership calls that “a drop in the bucket”—and not even necessarily in the right bucket. The EPA’s new national recycling strategy only passingly mentions electronics.

Our municipal recycling programs need serious reevaluation.

Photo by Dmitry Rogulin\TASS via Getty Images

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