Sunday, January 13, 2008

When Your Cell Phone Dies...

The Story of Stuff has infected my mind. A piece in today's NY Times, The Afterlife of Cellphones, looks at what happens when cell phones are tossed out. As I write, the article is printing out to be read later. (I like to copy/paste to a two-column page in 12-point type for easy reading later. This item runs to nine pages.)

The metals exit the smelter’s base as a glowing sludge. It streams into another caldron the height of a house. From there, it moves into tanks of acid. The acid is electrocuted. As electricity flows through the mixture, copper accumulates on the tank’s end plate. I watched a giant claw move across the ceiling, rip out the plate and, with a violent whack, cleave off a gleaming layer of 99.9 percent pure copper, with the unmistakable sheen of a new penny. It was thrilling to see something so clean and recognizable emerge from such an alien process.

After explaining the final stages, Thierry Van Kerckhoven, Umicore’s e-scrap manager, handed me another of the end products from this process: a one-kilogram bar of gold. It felt the way I thought it would, based on what you see in the movies: substantial, mesmerizing. It was worth about $24,000. “This gold is recycled gold,” Kerckhoven said. “This gold is green gold.”

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