For all but the largest electronics recycling companies, the reality of an in-house, automated system for separating the married metals and plastics of end-of-life electronics is only slightly less far-fetched than human teleportation. Development costs are high. Specialization reigns supreme in the industry. Capital-intensive manual de-manufacturing processes are still the norm.
As far as most industry insiders are concerned, eliminating the elbow grease from electronics disassembly—still the first step in a process that leads to the shredding and reduction necessary to allow for separation—is about as feasible as rendering fat from a Vegan.
“There is always going to be a certain amount of manual separation involved in recycling e-waste,” says Jim Greenberg, president of Gold Circuit Inc., one of the rare recycling companies that has deployed advanced electronics separation equipment. “Take computers and monitors. There are chips you have to pull off the (circuit) boards that have batteries beneath them. Batteries must be removed before shredding. And with LCD monitors you have to physically remove the backlight, because it has mercury vapor.”
That is a common refrain in e-recycling circles, a nod to the major challenge facing manufacturers and recyclers with stakes in separation equipment: how to deal with the leads, chromium, cadmium, fire retardants and other hazardous materials inherent in e-waste. “An average cathode ray tube (CRT) has eight pounds of lead,” says Cynthia Andela, president and chief operating officer of Andela Products, Ltd., of Richfield Springs, New York, which manufacturers one of the few advanced systems tackling this particular aspect of separation.
Employing patented technology developed with RRT Design and Construction, located in Melville, New York, Andela’s E-Vantage Recycling System reduces and separates mixed throughputs of glass and non-glass in a fully enclosed, filtered system. In this way, lead particles don’t escape into the environment, fewer CRTs need be shipped overseas, and Mother Nature, conceivably, smiles.
“Our E-Vantage Recycling System processes material with both glass and non-glass content,” Andela says. “It will accept CRT tubes, monitors and other electronics. If the material contains glass, it goes through a glass reduction and separation system, where our proprietary design comes in.” Everything goes through a shredder system and then magnetic and eddy current fields separate certain metals from other components.
The standard magnetic and eddy current treatment is nothing new to recycling. Long before Dell Inc. and other original electronics manufacturers (OEMs) began contributing to the growing mass of e-waste, magnets were crucial in yanking out Pepsi cans from mixed-waste streams and other applications; almost two decades before the iPod revolutionized digital music, eddy currents began to make waves in the field of automated separation.
“With e-scrap, there are a couple of different things you want to do,” says Al Gedgaudas, manager of recycling equipment sales for Eriez Separation of Erie, Pennsylvania, the largest global manufacturer of magnetic and eddy current separation systems. “You’ll shred, have a screening device. And then there will be either a magnetic head pulley or drum that pulls out magnetic materials. After that, the stuff goes to an eddy current separator, with a pan feeder and take-away chutes, to liberate aluminum and other non-ferrous metals.”
Still, there are limitations to these processes that go beyond the scope of both Eriez’ and Andela’s specializations. Magnets and eddy currents do not remove stainless steel, individual wire forms, boards or any plastics—that mixed, value-poor stream is the Achilles’ heel of electronics separation. While Eriez manufactures a metal sorter that can further separate metals after eddy current separation, few have realized a way to automatically process the contaminated, commingled plastic streams for re-use.
Plastic electronic components are made up of many types of resin, much of which has been treated with hazardous fire retardants, all of which tend to end up mixed with paper labels and other undesirable company. Since it is both contaminated and non-lucrative, recyclers don’t want it. Plastics manufacturers can’t use it for much.
“The biggest bugaboo in electronics is that darn plastic,” says David Yamamoto, manager of research and development for Shred-Tech Inc. in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada. “Anywhere from 33 to 45 percent of consumer electronics is plastic scrap. The issue is, what do you do with it?”
In response, academic research and modeling studies have shown promise in the field of plastics separation, particularly at the Georgia Institute of Technology. MBA Polymers, Inc., of Richmond, California, and other plastics recycling engineering firms have innovated techniques now beginning to creep onto market. A few shredder manufacturers like Shred-Tech, along with a handful of high-volume recycling companies and assorted R&D firms, have also invested millions to bring together the various specialized pieces of equipment necessary for comprehensive e-waste recycling.
These so-called “package systems” could, potentially, help at least some markets in the recycling industry attain that lofty goal of separating and recycling close to 100 percent of electronic waste. But the package systems are tailored to the specific buyer’s needs and specifications, few will say exactly how or how well they separate plastics, and none are so affordable as to allow the advanced separation technology—their hallmark—to fall into the hands of smaller recyclers.
Such is the case with the multi-million dollar system Electronic Partners Corporation of Coppell, Texas, has developed and put to work at the service end of e-waste recycling. Using what it calls Variable Vortex Technology, EPC’s Material Conversion Centers have the tantalizing potential of creating 13 mostly pure streams—aluminum, steel, copper, plastics, etc. At this point, the technology is unlikely to reach a large audience, however. “If we tried to sell our system as technology we would not be successful,” explains Phil Alfaro, vice president of business development. “There are not enough recyclers out there with the capital to put into this sort of system.”
In a fragmented field with over 400 recyclers splitting industry-wide annual revenue of about $700 million, barriers to entering this advanced separation segment are considerable. Alfaro speculates that, with time, there will be industry consolidation and thus more companies capable of investing $5 million to $10 million to develop and manufacture such an automated machine. In the future, profitability in the separation and recycling of e-waste will depend on it.