E-waste: The Nuts and Bolts of Why It Still Plagues our Landfills

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Most of us have been faced with the challenge of disposing of a computer at one time or another in our professional careers. Perhaps the unit you are using has died. Maybe it is no longer able to keep up with current technology and software. Or it’s just not the right model for your business needs.

There’s a million reasons why we get rid of a laptop, desktop or other electronic item. And there’s about 300 times that number of electronic units manufactured each year and put out into the market. The U.S. and China are among the biggest producers of e-waste, and not surprisingly, among the biggest manufacturers of electronics. In 2013, more than 3 million tons of e-waste was generated, and only 40 percent of that burgeoning pile actually ended up getting recycled.

Recycling: The challenge of value recovery

So, what is making it so hard to do away with e-waste? And just what is it that is recovered that makes old, out-of-date recycled computers both valuable and a sustainable resource for business? Most importantly, what is it that still needs to happen to ensure that our average rate of 40 percent recycled can be transformed to 100 percent?

To get to the bottom of this pile of questions, we reached out first to Arrow Electronics, a company that specializes in electronic and component recycling.

Arrow first started as a forward distribution company for electronic components. In other words, it manufactured and sold the new components that went into the earliest hard drives, servers and many other electronics that launched the current electronics industry.

Today, Arrow’s main specialty is value recovery: the reclaiming, restoration and repurposing of electronics and the myriad of components that make those 300 million-plus units that go to market.

When a computer is recycled it usually ends up at a company like Arrow. The fate of that discarded unit may depend on a number of things, but ultimately, says Carol Baroudi, its end-purpose will be the reuse of viable materials. Baroudi specializes in IT asset disposition solutions for Arrow Electronics.

“Our first and foremost goal is reuse,” says Baroudi, who notes that the company has a goal of zero landfill in all of its operations.”If a computer, or a server, or a phone or a tablet can be used again — that is, if it is already in working condition and there is a market for it, or if it can be repaired for less than it costs to sell it for — we will repair it, we will refurbish it, and we will find a new owner for it.” Reuse can also take the form of components — from the tiniest, the size of a drop too small to pick up with your fingers, to the bulkiest, in the form of casings, wire and plastic.

Sounds like a pretty comprehensive system to take care of the world’s e-waste, right? So, why does the e-waste problem still exist?

Getting rid of that loveable old CRT

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First, says Baroudi, “there is a huge education gap” when it comes to recycling options for electronics. She says many consumers may realize that they can sell their cell phone at a kiosk for a few cents or a few dollars, or trade it in for credit at places like Best Buy or Staples, but not everyone realizes knows that their computer manufacturer probably has an agreement to take the unit back and recycle it when it’s reached the end of life point. “Most electronics just get thrown away or tossed aside” says Baroudi, “and that is a big danger from both a data security perspective and an environmental perspective.”

The second problem is actually interrelated to the first: a lack of infrastructure. Trade-in policies at stores like Best Buy are a new phenomena, relatively speaking, and only sparsely supported by city and county recycle drop-off programs. “If there is no Best Buy or Staples near you, what do you do with your computer?”

But it is the third challenge that speaks to the heart of the problem: “The lack of economics of recycled computers are very, very tricky,” says Baroudi. “There is a market for a two-year-old laptop, absolutely. But there is no market for a 12 year-old CRT,” especially one with leaded glass or materials that are now considered toxic and require special handling.

Redesigning the rare earths market

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Some much bigger examples of neodymium magnets

For years, electronics manufactures looked to China for the rare earth elements that are so essential to their industry. Rare earths like  neodymium and metals like tungsten fill a variety of roles and are generally indispensable in the manufacture of electronics.

But China’s clamp-down on its sale of these vital minerals, which emerged after it entered the electronics and clean energy markets has heightened the interest in recycled rare earths. And that’s a challenge when the material you are harvesting is so small it can’t be separated mechanically. “It’s like a putting a little eyedropper of liquid into a pot,” says Baroudi.

Wayne Rifer, who serves as the director of research and solutions for the Green Electronics Council, is well acquainted with the problems associated with rare earths. He and Jason Linnell, the director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling, published a paper on the challenges of recycling precious metals like tungsten and other related rare earth substances. The first point to acknowledge, says Rifer, is that rare earths are actually pretty common.

“They are improperly named,” says Rifer. “They aren’t rare. They are everywhere.”

And they are a technological feat that requires the recycling company to use manual, time-consuming and often ineffectual means to pull them from machines – steps that often make it cheaper to simply purchase new sources of rare earths.

Rifer and Linnell add that the relatively miniscule size of the magnet in the hard drive for example becomes a discouraging factor for the recycler “because the priority for many recyclers is to move large quantities of product as efficiently as possible [and therefore] “are often overlooked by the recycler.”

“They have to be removed from the hard drive so there can be a concentrated source of rare earths” on hand, says Rifer, and that is difficult when the manual cost of harvesting them in multiple numbers may exceed the customer demand.

In other words, says Baroudi, “recycling works when there is a buyer for the end product,” and in order for there to be an economical end product, there must be the infrastructure and a system to provide the product economically.

Rifer points out that that there are a number of steps being examined to improve the harvest of rare earths. He doesn’t believe that government subsidies, such as those offered in other industries would help incentivize recyclers to dig into rare earth recovery because it can be uncertain, making it difficult for business to plan. He also isn’t sure regulation will incentivize private industry to develop new ways to harvest a potentially expensive component.

The answer, he believes, is to develop a volunteer standard that offers a modest premium for the recycling of rare earths. The standard could also be built into programs like EPEAT, where there is a ready supply of manufacturers interfacing with the consumer market.

But first, he says, there must be better consideration to end-product design so that recyclers can find and remove rare earth components quickly and easily.

“How products are designed tend to affect how easily they are recycled,” says Rifer.

Changing green electronics

e-waste_LGJonas Allen, director of marketing for GEC, acknowledges that the challenge with any recycling system is to find a way to stay in step with the advancing technology of a very fluid market.

“The world of electronics changes so quickly,” says Allen, who added that the GEC is currently working with stakeholders to expand the EPEAT registry beyond the current types of products it covers and to resolve challenges around e-waste processing, including those sources that hold the world’s most precious elements.

“We have a vested interest in helping [the electronics industry] become green,” says Allen, and a vital part of that ongoing dialogue is how to reduce e-waste.

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Ed note: To learn more, consider attending the Emerging Green Conference September 24-25, 2015 in Portland, Oregon. Enter code TRIPLEPUNDIT to receive a 20 percent discount! 

Abandoned CRT: Endlisnis; Ancient cat-warmer: Steve Rainwater; Neodymium magnets: Thanh Ngyuen; LG monitor: LG

 

 

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.