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Waste Not
Gold, Silver Flowing Through Swiss Sewers Could Provide Path to Circular Future

Wastewater that’s worth the likes of gold? What would seem like a farfetched concept is reality in Switzerland, where 95 pounds of gold find their way into Swiss sewage each year — the equivalent of US$1,947,925.60. The build up is the result of the country’s iconic watch-making trade, which sees 70 percent of the world’s gold pass through Swiss gold-refining plants each year. So what to do with all this gold? Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology believe the discovery presents a golden opportunity for the tech industry to capitalize on the circular economy.

The study was commissioned by Switzerland’s Federal Office for the Environment and involved the analysis of 64 wastewater treatment plants across the country. In addition to gold, palladium, platinum and silver (approximately 6,500 pounds per year) were also discovered in waste water — all essential elements for electronics. In a time when the tech industry is faced with the potential problem of resource scarcity, establishing a circular system to recover these precious metals could help reduce risk. This is especially imperative during a time when the leading exporter of rare-earth metals (REEs) — China — is beginning to put stricter trade policies into place which ultimately restrict supply.

Recovery could also further elevate Switzerland’s status as an economic powerhouse, unlocking a myriad of new revenue-generating opportunities through the trade of REEs. The model could also be applied in the United States and Japan, the latter of which already extracts precious metals from waste via burning.

While recovery is not economically viable at this point in time, investing in extraction infrastructure now would allow Switzerland to position itself in a place of power for the future, particularly if paired with the practice of recovering precious metals from e-waste. Not only would the country be able to operate independently in terms of materials sourcing, but it would establish itself as a key driver of innovation by supplying precious materials to tech startups.