An article published by the National Conference of State Legislatures addressed the issue of the rapidly growing stream of used electronic devices and its need of appropriate management. The article quoted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency citing that “almost 2.4 million tons of electronics were disposed of in 2009, an increase of more than 120 percent from 1999. Of this amount, only 25 percent were collected for recycling. The rest ended up in landfills and incinerators. This includes computers, televisions, stereos, printers, copiers and mobile devices.”
As an update, EPA’s Advancing Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) 2015 Fact Sheet and Data Tables show that Americans generated 3.09 million tons of obsolete electronic products in 2015, about one percent of the municipal solid waste stream.
The National Conference cited many reasons why more U.S. states should have electronic waste recycling programs, including:
“Production of electronic devices requires a significant amount of resources – metals, plastics and glass – many of which can be recovered through recycling. For example, the production of one desktop computer takes at least 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water. Cell phones are also resource-intensive, composed of precious metals such as silver, gold, palladium and copper. Recovering these and other materials through recycling uses a fraction of the energy needed to mine new metals.
In addition, the presence of hazardous materials such as lead, nickel and mercury in some electronics make safe disposal particularly important. These metals could pose risks to human health or the environment if improperly handled.”
The issue of abundant electronics waste was such a concern that the EPA issued an electronics challenge for states to rethink business as usual and commit to innovative and responsible end-of-life electronics management. In 2017, that challenge recorded results of having nearly 276,000 tons of end-of-life electronics diverted from the landfill, 99.9% of which was sent to third-party certified recyclers.
However, that great news resulted in some challenges at the recycling yards, which we outlined in Thinking About the New iPhone X? Don’t Forget to Recycle Your Old Cell Phone. Here’s How… We wrote about how many of the electronics that are now ending up at scrapyards and metal recycling facilities, are shredded and combined with other metals, making it impossible to determine the exact content without careful analysis.
Knowing what’s inside that pile of shredded material is crucial to the profits and safety of scrap metal operations. The EPA cited some examples of how ewaste recycling can be a boon:
- One metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore in the US.
- Recycling facilities can recover 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold, and 33 pounds of palladium for every one million cell phones (PDF)
In addition, many Rare Earth Elements (REEs) can be found in recycling yards because REEs are critical components in mobile phones and other consumer electronics such as televisions, computers, and cameras, as well as high-power magnets, fluorescent lamps, catalytic converters and metal alloys. (Rare earth elements aren’t actually rare, but they are extremely difficult and costly to mine, so recycling has been a viable alternative.) Rare earth elements are also known as the “Green Elements” because they are essential to many green energy technologies such as hybrid car batteries and wind turbines.
Fast, accurate scrap metal sorting is a fundamental part of the scrap yard operation to increase recovery of reusable materials so that the metal can be sold for remanufacturing into new products. These scrap metal recyclers most likely know what they’ll find in products that are still intact, but if the devices are shredded there could be any number of metals in varying quantities, along with hazardous materials.
In these situations, handheld x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzers are the best way to positively identify numerous alloys, rapidly analyze their chemical composition at material transfer points, and guarantee the quality of their product to their customers. These portable XRF analyzers can help detect if electronics — including printed circuit board (PCB) finishes, leads, terminations, solder and internal/external interconnects — contain restricted substances, and help ensure that toxic substances, including lead, mercury, and cadmium, are kept out of the recycling stream and future products.
Besides handheld analyzers, there are also Scrap Monitoring Systems that monitor vehicles entering the scrap yard, or processes within the facility, and provide accurate, reliable detection of radiation sources commonly found in scrap metal. The system helps scrap yard operators reject radioactive materials before they enter the recycling stream and then harm people or the environment.
I don’t see electronics going away any time soon, but maybe we’ll see more of the electronics components shredded, sorted, melted down, and manufactured into a new device.
- Rare Earth Element Metals Recycling: Is There Hope After All? (Part 1)
- Rare Earth Element Metals Recycling: Is There Hope After All? (Part 2)
- Rare Earth Element Recycling: Hype or Hope?
- Infographic: 10 Reasons (and Places) Recyclers Need Radiation Detection
- Brochure: Niton XL5 Handheld XRF Analyzer