December 2009

Electronic Waste

Electronic Waste in North America

By: Dave Huculak, GEEP Global

In the European Union (EU), the recycling of electronic waste has become an everyday practice.  The electronic waste is collected at designated points; either by local councils, or other institutions. Various transport companies deliver the electronic waste to central recycling facilities where it is then processed and separated into valuable fractions.

Unfortunately the situation in North America is different: In the US, it is estimated that 80 percent of the electronic waste collected for recycling is being exported to Asia or Africa, or being sent to domestic landfill sites. In this article I hope to explain the effects electronic waste, including IT equipment, is having on our environment and what companies such as GEEP and others are doing to help save our planet and its people.

Geep Global

Geep Global

Why are Landfills an issue?

The problem is somewhat like tipping a domino.

In a landfill situation, not only are the valuable metals such as copper, gold, silver, palladium and platinum lost; but rainwater washes the metals, particularly the heavy ones, out of the electronic waste and into the soil or the groundwater, and that is disturbing.  This presents a considerable health hazard for both people and animals, which ingest these heavy metals via the water supply.

We must also remember that we require these metals for a large percentage of new manufacturing.  If we lose the metals through sending electronic waste to landfills, then we must mine for the metals through traditional means.

For example, it requires approximately 200 metric tonnes of copper ore (rocks containing copper trace) to be mined and processed to produce one metric ton of copper. On the contrary, when electronic waste is processed, it requires only 14 metric tonnes of electronic waste to make one metric tonne of copper. This statement also holds true for much of the other precious metals identified above. Think about this for a second: Avoid the landfill, generate useful raw materials, and reduce mining.

Exportation of Electronic Waste

Despite the amount of media coverage, the formation of action groups, and state and provincial legislation; containers of non-functioning electronic waste is routinely exported by developed countries to developing ones, often in violation of the international law. Inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found as much as 47 percent of waste destined for export, including electronic waste, was illegal. In the US, it is estimated that 50-80 percent of the waste collected for recycling is being exported in this way. This practice is legal because the US has not ratified the Basel Convention. (Source Greenpeace)
The US and Canada are the first and second biggest perpetrators of this practice, despite the many television & radio broadcasts and the print media that depicts some of the negative effects to society of sending electronic waste overseas. I would doubt that any of us would argue this point; so why do these practices continue?

Simply speaking, overseas electronic waste recycling costs little to execute, the basic licensing and permits are nonexistent, fair competition does not exist, and there is little to no infrastructure for health and safety practices that are policing the conditions that workers are involved in. While this practice is illegal in Canada it still exists. Unfortunately in the US, while the practice is frowned upon, it is not illegal.

So how does Electronic Waste affect the IT Industry?

IT gear (Desktops, Laptops, Servers, Routers) are all subsets of electronic waste. While many OEM & Carriers have Investment Recovery programs that address the product they build for the North American markets, some of these programs still fall short when addressing the final destination of that old server, laptop, or other electronic waste.

EU Legislation makes the collecting and recycling of electronic waste compulsory and regulates both the amounts of electronic waste that have to be collected and also the degree to which the electronic waste has to be reprocessed. IT gear cascades into those criteria. To sell into the EU the OEM must have a qualifying end of life disposition program.

For North America, similar legislation exists in certain states within the US and many provinces within Canada. The programs also have differences, some slight and some major. Funding for processing and collection of electronic waste is a concern. The consistency is not at an acceptable rate as it is not yet federally governed and not internationally recognized throughout the continent. These inconsistencies create loopholes, whereas exportation of electronic waste becomes easier.

Regardless of the legislation we North Americans do have options. Producers and users from an OEM, distributor and end user perspective need to understand their responsibilities when they export and send electronic waste to landfill.

We have companies in North America that execute processes that are economically and environmentally positive, who have closed loop processes and that can and do compete with our EU colleagues.

The problem of transportation costs

North America is a big continent, Europe can easily fit into the US or Canada. In Germany the greatest distance between north and south is roughly 1200 kilometres.  Electronic waste can be transported to any one of several central points for reprocessing with relatively few problems.

In the North America, however, the distances involved play a far more vital role. In the US and Canada, distances can be more than 4,000 kilometres apart.  Under these conditions, material logistics and transportation costs can be major factors that affect profitability when it comes to recycling electronic waste.

How we positive economical and environmental impact?

At GEEP the goal is to offer customers multiple customized Investment Recovery solutions

As an ex OEM Investment Recovery International leader, I placed emphasis on using companies that offered multiple solutions to excess, obsolete, out of service materials, and electronic waste. Why manage many vendors when you can manage a few?

At GEEP we have the same logic. Obviously it is impossible to be all things to all people, but we work with clients to identify opportunities for improvement and co-develop processes that have positive economical and environmental impact.

These co-developed processes include Investment recovery practices below:

  • Asset Returns
  • Cell Phone disposition
  • Data Destruction of information
  • De-installation of existing infrastructure
  • Depot Management of customer stocking locations
  • Part harvesting
  • Recycling
  • Redistribution of Customer Material
  • Reverse Logistics
  • Test & Upgrade

So how do we execute? We execute through partnerships with companies in the IT industry through master service agreements or joint venture opportunities. The development of a network or footprint is necessary to try to reduce transport. Regional Electronic Recycling Processes (ERP) has to be established to take advantage of the material flow required to justify the process.

GEEP believes that we need to squeeze every last value out of the product if we are going to keep customers interested in our process. To ensure this, our focus is on the development of the services offering.

Once we have collectively determined with the customer that the service value has been exhausted, our end-of-life recycling process kicks in.

GEEP’s recycling process

In simple terms electronic waste is fed into the ERP I system via series of metal conveyors. The ERP I chamber has two large chains (similar to anchor chains on a ship) that spin at 2400 rpm. As electronic waste enters this chamber the material is fragmented into multiple pieces

The electronic waste is then sieved and the larger pieces transported on a sorting belt.  The valuable parts of the electronic waste such as transformers, circuit boards containing precious metals or copper and stainless steel as well as large pieces of plastic are firstly sorted manually from the stream of material and then chuted into boxes or bins for further processing.

Valuable non-ferrous particles are then separated from those pieces, smaller than 50 mm, using an eddy current technique.  The ERP I process separates approximately four tons of electronic waste per hour.

After the electronic waste has been subjected to the initial processes, approximately 20 percent of the original material that mainly consists of copper wire, pieces of circuit boards and composite material that remains in a non commodity state is forwarded to the ERP II process and separated into highly concentrated metals fractions.

ERP II for breaking down materials

The belt overflow contains a high percentage of valuable metals, which cannot, however, be separated in their current form.  Copper wire in particular tends to get caught up and form tangled lumps.  The ERP II process further manipulates and fragments the copper-bearing materials with a heavy-duty hammer mill to form balls from the copper wire.  This type of balled material can then be easily separated into highly concentrated metal fractions and practically metal-free plastic fractions using gravity separation methods.

The remaining fine fractions and dusts can then be further processed by means of electrostatic separation techniques, making it possible to recover the remaining metals. Finely sieved fractions, and particularly dusts, still contain large amounts of valuable metal.  Both copper and precious metals are often found among these fine fractions.  It is essential to regain these metals in order to optimise metal recovery and the aggregate added value.

GEEP uses Hamos KWS electrostatic separators for this purpose.  The material is placed a rotating metal roller, charged with high voltage and selectively discharged on the earthed roller.  Metals then fall off the roller while plastics continue to adhere to it, which are then brushed off at another point.  Using this method, multiple-stage devices are capable of separating up to 1,000 kilograms of material per hour.

The final product results in a clean metal fraction and a clean mixed plastic fraction.

Clean metal is processed via an external refining process and the mixed plastic is destined for our in-house Nano Fuel – plastic to diesel – conversion process.

In the last three years GEEP has invested more than twenty million dollars in the development of proprietary software and hardware that is the ERP NANO fuel system. This system leads to no landfill of valuable metals and no export of electronic waste; it is a truly viable option

Why would GEEP spend all this effort and money on all these processes if exportation still happens?

We like to call it “The Responsible Alternative.”