Minnesota can lead and prosper in e-recycling

PHOTO: U.S. Army Environmental Command, Flickr CC-BY

The sprawling pits on the edge of Iron Range towns inspire many emotions. Some feel pride in the miners and steel that built a growing nation. Others see environmental damage or the pain of loss. But the facts are inarguable: these are holes where ore was removed forever.

Our economy centers on consumption. We find resources, process them into commodities, and manufacture those commodities into products that people use. We’ve done this long enough that it feels eternal, but it absolutely isn’t. Resources run out.

For more than 20 years, northern Minnesota has weathered conflict over mining copper, nickel and other precious minerals in the Duluth Complex of northeastern Minnesota. The debate became more political than practical.

We do need these kinds of minerals in consumer goods, but we also don’t yet know if mining them here is the most cost-effective or environmentally sound plan. The cost of production is the biggest barrier, and we would be wise to include environmental costs in that equation. Even if you disagree, the lower grade ores present a clear logistical challenge to mining companies.

Meantime, minerals recovered from recycling are just as useful and valuable as those mined. Right now, less than 24 percent of Minnesota’s electronic waste is recycled. Amping up recycling would open new opportunities to meet future demand. That’s the premise behind a new study from the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability, Macalester College, and a Minnesota e-recycling company called Repowered.

The pilot study found that a statewide effort to recycle valuable minerals from electronic devices would produce almost 2,000 jobs and $2.8 billion in annual revenue. Out of 266 million pounds of annual e-waste, 78 million pounds of valuable metals could be extracted just in Minnesota. This includes enough copper to manufacture 155,000 electric vehicles and enough silver to produce 441,000 solar panels.

I met with the study’s authors last month to discuss their findings.

Maria Jensen is an environmental health and safety officer for the Minnesota-based recycling company Repowered. She wore a neon yellow safety vest — her hard hat sitting nearby — fresh off patrolling the plant floor. She described the process used to strip commodities from discarded electronics.

The best method involves manually stripping the wires and parts to remove the valuable goods. Then the different elements can be shredded and smelted. The purer the mix going into the smelter, the less energy it takes to extract the good stuff. There are mechanical means of extraction, but they produce more waste and use more energy.

In the study, Jensen identified three major barriers to electronic waste recycling in Minnesota.

“We’re not collecting it all, once we collect it we send it out of the country, and the smelting process isn’t perfect,” said Jensen.

Roopali Phadke, a professor at Macalester College, has been studying the impact of resource extraction for years.

“These materials haven’t been valued in a way that made sense for us to recycle,” said Phadke. “Industry hasn’t had an expectation to do something about it. We have environmental policies that make it difficult to establish [recycling] facilities. I’ve seen in other countries, particularly France, there is pushback. That is part of the challenge for the future. How do we site these in the U.S. while maintaining high environmental standards.”

Recycling at this scale would require manufacturers who produce the most waste to help pay for its eventual recycling.

“At the highest levels this goes to how our economy works,” said Keith Steva, who contributed economic analysis to the study. “The public pays on the back end when producers should bear more of the cost to recycle.

This has plagued all recycling. Many cities and counties struggle to afford recycling programs while single-use containers continue to roll off production lines.

For instance, last month, residents of the Fargo-Moorhead area learned they could no longer recycle glass in curbside pickup due to processing costs. The resale market for glass is so poor that it’s usually crushed for use in local road projects rather than being made into new glass. Market pricing for recycled paper, cardboard and plastic also lag at or below cost.

The same problems beset electronic waste, where circuitboards and wires now hide in washing machines, refrigerators and toasters. A policy that centers recycling as a prudent source of raw materials could relieve the financial burden now carried by city and county solid waste departments.

The study’s authors don’t believe that expanded electronic waste recycling disqualifies proposed mining projects. However, they conclude that recycling these minerals is just as viable as mining them and might be more responsible.

“We have an alternative that reduces waste and has a lower carbon footprint that provides jobs forever,” said Steva. “This is not a hard decision. But it’s a hard discussion to have in northern Minnesota. This is a big deal, not an annoying problem but a real opportunity.”

The authors acknowledge that recycling all of Minnesota’s e-waste will require revised state regulations and willing communities. But Marlise Riffel, president of the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability, is excited by the opportunity.

“We can build something to make the old system obsolete,” said Riffel.

Riffel highlights developments like bio-hydrometallurgy, which uses a biological process to extract minerals from electronic waste without smelting. Co-author Jensen points to a process at a Canadian company that uses hydrometallurgy, a similar process that uses chemicals but is still better than smelting.

In a rapidly changing world, adaptation will become a valued skill. Northern Minnesota can benefit from expanding its view of how the minerals in 21st Century electronic goods will be sourced.

You can find out more at the Iron Range EarthFest on Saturday, April 22 at the Iron Trail Motors Convention Center in Virginia. In addition to reviewing research from this study, you can take part in a Repair Cafe — a how-to table that shows you how to fix rather than throw out your electronic devices.

The answer has been in the slogan all along. “Reduce” means using less stuff. “Reuse” means extending the life of our goods. Only then do we “Recycle” as much as we can. Even modest improvement would generate a mine’s worth of economic impact that can be sustained beyond the life of mining.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, April 15, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Noreen Hautala says

    Hello, Aaron!
    This study got me very hopeful!
    A friend mentioned that stripping the electronics entails using highly toxic chemicals, which would at some point end up in local WATER.
    You’re article mentions the possibility of stripping by hand. “Stripping by hand” sounds like a less toxic method, and possibly many new jobs that don’t require an extensive, specialized education.
    Any thoughts about this?

    • Stripping electronic materials by hand is both cleaner and recovers more usable material. It’s labor-intensive which is why it’s not always done that way. This place in St. Paul does it that way. Obviously better than chemicals, but chemicals are better than having to mine and produce new materials from scratch. It depends on how clean and conservation-minded we want to be.

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