There’s gold in them there wardrobes!

August 18th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

If you've got bars of it, you're good as gold, but tooth filings and eyeglass frames will do. (Kyodo photo)

A term that has suddenly come to the fore in recent months is “urban mining,” the idea that there are precious metals in the everyday objects that surround us that can be recycled. The most prominent example is old cell phones, which contain both iridium and gold. There’s not enough in one to make its owner rich, but, for instance, a ton of ore from a gold mine typically gives up only 5 grams of real gold, while a ton of discarded cell phones could represent as much as 150 grams of gold.

Japan is generally acknowledged to have the largest potential urban mine of any country in the world. It is believed the general public possesses 6,800 tons of gold, mostly in the form of jewelry and accessories, but also in ingot and bar forms, not to mention “hidden” gold in electronics devices. (Many Japanese keep their old cell phones because they want to hold onto the data they contain.) That’s the equivalent of 16 percent of what is estimated to be all the “uncovered” gold in the ground worldwide. Silver is even more: 60,000 tons, or 22 percent of the amount still buried.

Apparently, a lot of people who possess, or think they possess, gold have finally come around to the notion that they should find out how much it’s worth. News outlets are now filled with stories about metal exchange businesses being swamped with customers. One merchant that gets a lot of coverage is Goldplaza Ginza in Tokyo, which is so packed with people and their valuables that by early afternoon there’s often a four-hour wait for an appraisal. The company that owns the store, appropriately called Dream Factory, told the tabloid Nikkan Sports that a year ago the store was lucky to see 10 people a day. Now they reckon visitors have increased tenfold. Another metal merchant, Ginza Tanaka, has had to extend its hours to 9:30 every day.

The reason is simple. With the dollar dropping worldwide people have sought security in gold. On April 17, the price of a gram of gold in Tokyo was ¥2,901. On August 11, it was ¥4,627. Long-term the increase is even more impressive: The price of gold in Japan has effectively quintupled over the last 10 years.

So people are digging into their tansu (wardrobes) and closets for anything that might contain the yellow substance. Nikkan Sports talked to a number of customers at the above-mentioned two merchants, which were divided into two types: Those with certifiable gold who wanted to exchange it for cash, and those with items they assumed were gold and who wanted to find out what they were worth, if anything. In the former category, some people brought actual gold bars. A 500-gram specimen fetched one woman a cool ¥2 million. A couple in their 60s brought a gold necklace that had been sitting around unworn for two decades. They didn’t say how much they got for it, but admitted the quote was much higher than they expected. Of course, it was also lower than what they actually paid at the time of purchase, since the retail price of gold jewelry is much higher than the price of the gold owing to the added value of the workmanship, etc. In the latter category were people bearing eyeglass frames, tooth fillings, even a statue of Buddha plated in gold. No garbage bags of cell phones, though.

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One Response

  1. I recently saw some pieces on shows like CNN and the journal with Joan Lunden on PBS that were talking about issues and solutions for industrial recycling. This is an interesting twist that could really become a game changer in the future. Whoever gets in at the beginning of the urban mining will possibly be a part of a new gold rush of sorts. I hope we start implementing such programs early on to reduce our dependence.


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