Image supplied AuTerra.
Shedding the circuit boards. Image supplied AuTerra.
  • For most people an old cell phone or computer is simply a piece of trash destined for landfill, but for jewellery maker Ashley Heather it's treasure.
  • She has built her business from tirelessly extracting the gold and silver in e-waste to make beautiful rings, necklaces, and more.
  • Up to 16 recycled cell phones can be used to make a delicate 9k ring while some rings can take a whopping 20kg of e-waste to make.
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For most people an old cell phone or computer is simply a piece of trash destined for landfill. But where others see junk, Cape Town based entrepreneur Ashley Heather found inspiration.

"E-waste turns out to be a jeweller's dream, because it contains both gold and silver and it's also the fastest growing municipal waste stream in the world," she says.

From motherboards to old cell phones, Heather wants all this junk (called e-waste) to make delicately designed feature pieces. She and her award winning business, AuTerra, have become known for turning trash into timeless pieces to be treasured in an eco-friendly and sustainable manner.  

"When I fell in love with the craft of jewellery making, I knew I needed to find a way to combine this with my longstanding passion for sustainability.”

Image supplied AuTerra.
Ashley Heather in the AuTerra studio. Image supplied AuTerra.

While Heather insists it's incredibly difficult to say exactly how much gold they can extract from each piece of e-waste, to give you an idea of the sheer volume it can take anything from up to 16 recycled cell phones to a whopping 20kg of e-waste to make some of their finely crafted rings.

"There's no shortage of actual e-waste. There are about 15 million tons generated every year. But only about 15 to 20% of that is recycled. Cell phones contain a lot more gold in them than computers. So there really isn't an average of how much it takes to make one piece."

The process of extracting the metals is a time-consuming endeavour. For one, getting your hands on the e-waste can be a challenge. AuTerra buys their source throughout South Africa, with a little bit from Zimbabwe, through a network of e-waste aggregators.

Photo by Lydia Harper.
Smelting the metals. Photo by Lydia Harper, image supplied AuTerra.

"It has been more of a challenge over these last two years during lockdown. A lot of the e-waste was exported, so it's been more challenging to get it of late. It's a bit of a treasure hunt, every month to find enough to process what we need."

Once found, the e-waste gets sent to a refinery where it is separated into components that are not useful, whatever isn't used gets recycled. They then smash the e-waste down into chips and thereafter, run it through a shredder, before feeding it into a furnace or in the case of smaller batches, a crucible.

Photo by Lydia Harper.
Smelting the metals. Photo by Lydia Harper, image supplied AuTerra.

"The results of this are two products, a slag which is the by-product, it gets a second life in the construction of roads used as road fill, and then a mixed metal mass. The mass is a combination of copper gold and silver and, depending on the type of e-waste, a few other metals."

Image supplied AuTerra.
A crucible of recycled silver. Image supplied AuTerra.

Heather says the most technically challenging aspect of the recycling process is separating out the metal mass via a process called Electrowinning, also called electroextraction. If you can remember your matric science, this is when you pass an electrical current through an anode in a solution containing the dissolved metal ions. The chemical reaction causes the metals to deposit onto a cathode, which can then be collected. 

"Those metals are then melted again and purified to ensure a really pure high quality jewellery grade metal," says Heather. "All the components from the plastics to the solid metal components, like the aluminium bits, are all sent their separate ways for recycling as well."

The dumpster diving jewellery business started eleven years ago when Heather wanted to make a silver ring. Rather than using any ordinary metal she wanted to see if she could source the silver from recycled silver halide, the light-sensitive metal used in photographic film and x-rays.

"I stumbled into jewellery making quite by accident. I'd always discounted it as an option for my career because of the sustainable social and environmental costs of mining. I discovered that I had a true passion for working with metal, I knew I had to find a way to bring together my passion for sustainability with my love of the craft of jewellery making," she says.

The process worked, but thanks to digital photography stock was rare and expensive to find. Instead, she switched gears to computer junk.

"The rest of the story is really just a lot of research and some very serendipitous connections later; we make all our pieces in gold and silver recycled from e-waste."

Image supplied AuTerra.
Recycled e-waste nuggets. Image supplied AuTerra.

According to Heather, mining just ten grams of gold displaces 4,800kg of earth. Contrary to digging more gold out of the ground, e-waste provides an excellent resource. Devices often make use of small amounts of gold and silver because the metals conduct electricity. The average computer has about a fifth of a gram of gold in it. Americans, alone, throw out a staggering R914 million ($60 million) worth of gold and silver every year just from cell phones, reports the New York Times 

The business is a far cry from those early days in 2010 when it all started. AuTerra has grown from a one-woman operation to include e-waste sorters and other craftspeople. Heather spends most of her time in her studio on the first floor of the Old Biscuit Mill in the fashion forward Cape Town suburb of Woodstock.

Image supplied by AuTerra.
Light Seeker Gold Pendant on Marble. Image supplied by AuTerra.

"I really love working with precious metals; they're such beautiful materials to craft. It's always a constant exchange between what you want the metal to do and the metal's natural property."

Fresh out of the workshop is a new range called Solaris – a collection that found inspiration during the pandemic.

"The world was thrown into turmoil so suddenly and I think it caused a lot of us to look up from our lives and see how we fitted into larger systems but at the same time the uncertainty and trauma were deeply personal experiences."

"In our fast fashion, consumer culture, fine jewellery has managed to, for the most part, escape that kind of throwaway culture. I love the idea that we create heirloom pieces that are going to go on to be enjoyed by many generations, whether that's in the same form as the original piece or whether that material gets remade and repurposed."

If you want to make sure your broken electronics are spared becoming a useless pile of waste on landfills, you can donate them at the their studio or at a number of participating Makro stores around the country.

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