WORCESTER, Mass.--The electronic waste piling up in our closets and basements holds valuable material that could be used to make something new, as is the case with old newspapers and plastic bottles. The challenge is ensuring that e-waste gets recycled without threatening public health.
Earlier this week, I took a tour of a small electronics recycler here that caters to people who want to be sure that their e-waste is handled responsibly, rather than be shipped to a destination with unknown or unverified practices. The center, operated by Metech Recycling, provided a peek into how everyday products find a second life and shed some light on the challenges of dealing with e-waste.
As of 2008, the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that an average U.S. household owns 24 electronics products, a number which is likely growing given the proliferation of digital goods. Yet the rate of electronics recycling is lower than other municipal solid wastes, with TVs and computer products recycled at a rate of 18 percent by weight and cell phones at 10 percent from 2006 to 2007, according to the EPA.
There's a contentious debate on how the U.S. should deal with e-waste, with the status quo being a patchwork of state regulations and industry-led initiatives. There are two competing certifications--a recycling industry-backed voluntary standard called Responsible Recycling (R2) and e-Stewards, which is organized by the Basel Action Network (BAN). The Electronics Takeback Coalition, an advocacy group, and the Basel Action Network decided not to support the R2 certification because they say its practices don't sufficiently restrict the export and incineration of e-waste and other reasons.
Many people are now more aware of the hazards of bad practices. In some cases, discarded electronics are exported to China, west Africa, or other places where high-tech equipment is burned in pits for valuable metals, causing serious health and environmental problems. (Two high-profile investigations are National Geographic's "High Tech Trash" and a video report from "60 Minutes.") In the U.S., electronics that aren't recycled or resold join the rest of municipal solid waste that goes in landfills or is burned in waste-to-energy plants, which is legal in many states.
E-waste is clearly a big problem, but Metech Recycling is among those trying to address it on a local level. The business model is straight-forward: people and companies pay to dispose of their electronics gear and have assurances that it's handled on site and any important data is destroyed. The way Metech Recycling does that is by manually disassembling electronics, which can be anything with a cord.
"We take stuff apart and prepare it in forms for the next person downstream. That increases the chances, or ensures, that it will be used for the purpose you want, as opposed to (sending) a whole TV set," said company CEO Chris Ryan.
In terms of weight, the bulk of the materials comes from corporate customers, such as telecom equipment companies, but it also gets e-waste from individuals or through municipal e-waste pick-ups at schools or other locations.
The high-value stuff is metals, which are commanding very high prices these days. It may be hard to believe but precious metals gold, silver, platinum, and palladium, are commonly used in electronics. Other metals, including copper, tin, steel, nickel, and lead can be extracted from circuit boards at special smelters. There are only a few of these sophisticated smelters in the world, with none in the U.S.
Metech, which started out doing precious metal recuperation, also separates four types of aluminum, steel, and plastics. Even wood paneling is sent to incinerators, which is how much of the municipal solid waste is handling in densely populated eastern Massachusetts. A tiny portion, about half of one percent of the waste that enters the facility, is regulated waste and is encapsulated before going to a landfill.
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During the tour, environmental manager Andrew McManus said that manual separation allows the company to come up with a pure form of commodity, compared to automated processes. There were piles of cell tower base stations waiting for disassembly, for example, during our visit. Rooting out the copper wiring or gold-plated components and separating them allows them to sell it for the highest price possible to smelters.
The company also disassembles more common equipment such as cathode ray tube PC monitors under contract. In that case, too, it removes the electronics and ships the rest to another facility in the U.S. By manually handing things such as batteries or compact fluorescent bulbs, environmental hazards such as mercury or lead are separated from the scrap stream, it says.
In McManus' view, paying for electronics recycling is the way to ensure that workers are protected, prison labor isn't used, and the waste is handled in a responsible way. It's also paid to destroy sensitive data, in some cases actually having employees witness data tapes destroyed. McManus has audited sites that receive its scrap and Metech itself has been audited as part of the e-stewards certification.
"If you don't have a fee-based system, you're encouraging containers (of e-waste) being shipped overseas," he said. "But if it's expensive and not convenient, then recycling is probably not going to happen."
The company, located in an industrial zone, takes drop-offs, with the cost ranging from nothing for cell phones to about $20 for larger items, such as TVs.
Metech, which is one of the founding members of the e-Stewards program, is making a business of responsible electronics recycling. But from an economic point of view, one of the main problems with e-waste recycling is that there's a wide disparity in the inherent value of different goods.
Circuit boards, for example, have 200 times the concentration of valuable metals than ore and there's a significantly less energy and water used in recycling rather than mining, according to company executives. By contrast, the glass in cathode ray tubes contains a very small amount of lead which is difficult to recuperate. TVs, including flat-panel screens, don't have a lot of value either. Whereas metals can fetch hundreds of dollars an ounce, many plastics used in electronics are worth pennies a pound.
To increase the volume that can be handled, some recyclers are investing in machines which largely automate the process. Driven by Ontario, Canada's e-waste recycling regulations, Sims Recycling Solutions opened a highly automated e-waste plant outside Toronto last year.
Manual "demanufacturing" and sorting leads to a more uniform scrap material but there are limits to that approach, said Steve Skurnac, the president of Sims Recycling Solutions North America.
"There are some advantages of hand separation but I don't consider them to be material and it certainly doesn't translate into any kind of volume," Skurnac said. "The one drawback (of automation) is that you do need to invest in more and better technology."
At this point, most of the regulatory action meant to increase recycling rates is happening at the state level. The Consumer Electronics Association earlier this year launched a voluntary industry effort called the eCycling Leadership Initiative with a goal of tripling the amount the industry recycles every year.
Skurnac believes that the cost of recycling should be figured into the manufacturers' cost of producing and selling a product, which will lead to greater scale in recycling. But there needs to be federal guidelines to ensure that waste is handled responsibly. "Right now," he said. "It's kind of a free-for-all."