In our continued quest for the new, regularly discarding mobile phones, tablets and laptops in favor of the latest, must-have models has become commonplace. So it is perhaps unsurprising that landfill sites are steadily filling up with our unwanted electronics. However, so-called e-waste is now the fastest-growing category of waste in the world, with a UN report estimating that nearly 50m tonnes will be generated globally in 2018, and predicting that this figure will surpass 57m tonnes annually by 2021.
Though often containing toxic substances such as lead and mercury, our smart devices also contain valuable elements including gold, silver and copper, and in greater concentrations than in the most productive mines. Indeed, a tonne of circuit boards can contain as much as 30 times more gold than a tonne of ore, and the extraction process has far lower environmental impact and social costs than traditional mining. Yet despite this, barely 20% of the world’s e-waste is collected for recycling, and based on current disposal rates Americans alone throw out phones worth $60m in gold and silver every year.
While tackling the issue of e-waste is a problem that needs to be addressed globally, there are those who are already taking up the challenge, albeit on a much smaller scale. These include Eliza Walter, the founder of London-based jewelry brand Lylie’s, who prides herself on being the only jeweler in the UK currently using metals salvaged from discarded electronic devices as the primary material for her designs.
Walter launched her self-funded brand last October, and has already been awarded a hallmark by the London Assay Office for her efforts. However, despite the benefits, she recently admitted to Flora Macdonald Johnston of the Financial Times that there are some downfalls. “The current process of mining electronic waste is slow and complicated, and to make it environmentally friendly, large quantities must be mined simultaneously,” she said. And she explained to Macdonald Johnston that she has to work with refiners in Germany and the US as there are currently no facilities within the UK. “Huge effort is required to put these recycling schemes in place," she said. “And it can take years to collect enough electronic waste to mine and more high-tech plants are needed to process it.”
Each one of Walter’s bespoke designs takes eight weeks to create and involves a network of highly skilled craftspeople. The metals are put through a meticulous step by step process, which includes each design being transformed into 3D from sketches, either through carving by hand, which can take up to 200 hours per drawing, or with Computer Aided Design (CAD), as well as 3D printing. “I design to the client’s brief, producing three hand-rendered design ideas and sourcing a selection of recycled antique diamonds,” she told the FT.
Currently available online only, the designer hopes to open a pop-up shop in central London next year. And as well as producing her own collections, she encourages customers to recycle their unwanted jewelry with her. “My hope is that it becomes the norm for a customer, when considering the purchase of fine jewelry, to send the chosen brand all unworn pieces as well as broken bits to be recycled in exchange for credit against the new piece,” she said.