A paradigm shift is underway in Poland. Traditionally one of the European Union’s heaviest polluters and lowest recyclers, Poland now has the second-highest increase in recycling rates among EU countries over the last decade— new data shows. This is down in part to the work of Pawel Jarski, CEO and Founder of Elemental Holding, and his team. The company’s work is repositioning Poland at the forefront of Europe’s circular economy, a sector that puts eliminating pollution as one of its foundation principles.
Elemental’s hub of operations lies 40km southwest of Poland’s capital Warsaw. The site is one of energy and contrast. A modern office of floor-to-ceiling glass sits adjacent to a bustling urban mining operation processing electronic waste. A hum of workers busily sort through metal, plastic and cables from massive bags. An assembly line dismantles aging refrigerators, methodically stripping away layers to reveal valuable raw materials. Amidst the ordered chaos, trucks unload circuit boards, adding to the growing heaps.
It is this well-coordinated mix of hands-on labor and mechanical processing that has powered Elemental’s growth. Founded in Poland in 2010, the company expand into an urban mining and recycling trailblazer with a footprint extending across 15 nations, spanning three continents: Europe, Asia, and North America. They are at the forefront of a new industry dedicated to extracting value from the metal components in disposed electronics and other waste – urban mining.
IFC is investing $90 million to ramp up the firm’s ability to extract valuable materials from electronic waste while also expanding the firm’s scope to refine them for resale and reuse. At its most fundamental, urban mining seeks to harness electronic materials of untapped and overlooked value – the aluminum, cobalt, and gold in your old mobile phones for example – and transform them back into raw valuable resources. This can quickly add up. A new study in Switzerland puts an estimated $10 million worth of embedded gold in the country’s seven million unused phones. The US throws out $60 million in gold and silver contained in used phones every year based on e-waste disposal rates. While back in 2016, researchers at United Nations University were already estimating the raw materials contained in e-waste to be worth roughly $61 billion on a global scale.
The financial backing will pave the way for new metal recycling and refining facilities in Poland. Elemental is building one of its most innovative and ambitious projects – a facility to recycle spent lithium-ion batteries from electric vehicles and other products – in the city of Zawiercie in southern Poland, while also employing onsite solar generation and sustainable water management.
Transforming waste into valuable metals ripe for reuse is challenging. The process of recycling electronic scrap and lithium-ion batteries into valuable resources is still crude and does not always realize the potential recyclable amount. But Elemental’s track record and ambitious vision – environmentally sound and socially responsible mining that can catalyze long-term economic growth – goes beyond driving sustainable growth for one company. It illustrates a viable blueprint for how large businesses can integrate circular economy principles into their operations for the most impact. And it underpins the essence of circular waste management – where every waste stream is a valuable resource waiting to be harnessed.