Japan's unnatural resources

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Japan has a shocking amount of the world's precious and rare metals tied up in electronics, appliances and other consumer goods. Tokyo is an "urban mine."

A study by Komei Harada at the National Institute for Materials Science has uncovered that Japan has more gold than South Africa's reserves - 6,800 tons of gold, 16% of the world's reserves - and it's all in manufactured products that are likely to be discarded sooner or later.

It's not just gold. We have 22% of the world's natural reserves of silver, 8% of the world's copper reserves and a whopping 61% of indium, which is used for LCD displays. We've also got 5.6 million tons of lead, 38 million tons of copper and 1.2 billion tons of steel in small quantities scattered through out every household in the nation.

For example, according to an article in the Nikkei last week, "Each mobile phone handset contains 3-4 grams of copper, 0.1 gram of silver and 0.01 gram of gold, and with Japan now having 100 million cell phones in use..." Small bits here and there add up to a lot of useful materials.

How does one mine the metals after they are consumed? There are recycling programs for electronics here, but I don't know exactly what they extract. There's a 2005 report on the DTI Mission focused on electronics recycling in Japan, but it doesn't give many details.

It seems that there's a market for these metals, so it would be wasteful not to mine them. I want to do some digging and learn more..

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There was a story on the the evening news the other night about how much of the US electronic waste was being shipped to China where people in horrible conditions smelt out the precious metals. This results in polluted ground water and children, who play in the piles of junk while their parents work, becoming ill.

Recycling all this electronic waste is an important priority. But we have to figure out some way to do it without creating another type of ecological disaster. As long as there are poor people in other countries, though, I suspect the first world nations will continue to dump their trash overseas and let others sort it out.

Thanks for the statistics. This is fascinating.

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