Electronics Recycling Picks Up Steam in Face of Tightening Legislation, Incentive Programs

March 7, 2013

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Credit: Feelart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Credit: Feelart at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

As consumer electronics both proliferate and evolve, an increasing amount of obsolete or unwanted devices are entering the waste stream. For years, unwanted or unusable electronics, including TVs, VCRs, DVD players, cell phones, computers, and more, were discarded in landfills with most other trash. Now, many states have banned the disposal of electronics in landfills, instead encouraging or requiring individuals and businesses to recycle devices.

E-waste is the most rapidly growing segment of the municipal solid waste stream, according to Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment. But these devices often contain toxic materials, including mercury, lead, bromide, cadmium, beryllium, chromium, and chemical flame retardants. These substances have the potential to leach into the soil and ground water.

In 2001, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) passed a Final Rule regulating the disposal of monitors, televisions or other electronics that use cathode ray tubes (CRTs), due to the high amounts of cadmium and leaded glass used in their manufacture. The rule only applies to businesses that produce more than 220 pounds of electronic waste per month, in which case the e-waste must be labeled as “hazardous” and disposed of accordingly. Households and businesses that generate less than 220 pounds of e-waste are exempt from the federal rule.

Substance Occurrence in e-waste
Halogenated compounds:
- PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) Condensers, Transformers
- TBBA (tetrabromo-bisphenol-A) - PBB (polybrominated biphenyls) - PBDE (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) Fire retardants for plastics (thermoplastic components, cable insulation) TBBA is presently the most widely used flame retardant in printed wiring boards and casings.
- Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) Cooling unit, Insulation foam
- PVC (polyvinyl chloride) Cable insulation
Heavy metals and other metals:
- Arsenic Small quantities in the form of gallium arsenide within light emitting diodes
- Barium Getters in CRT
- Beryllium Power supply boxes which contain silicon controlled rectifiers and x-ray lenses
- Cadmium Rechargeable NiCd-batteries, fluorescent layer (CRT screens), printer inks and toners, photocopying-machines (printer drums)
- Chromium VI Data tapes, floppy-disks
- Lead CRT screens, batteries, printed wiring boards
- Lithium Li-batteries
- Mercury Fluorescent lamps that provide backlighting in LCDs, in some alkaline batteries and mercury wetted switches
- Nickel Rechargeable NiCd-batteries or NiMH-batteries, electron gun in CRT
- Rare Earth elements (Yttrium, Europium) Fluorescent layer (CRT-screen)
- Selenium Older photocopying-machines (photo drums)
- Zinc sulphide Interior of CRT screens, mixed with rare earth metals
Credit: eWasteGuide.info
However, state laws tend to be far more stringent. In the past decade, an increasing number of states have begun passing, implementing or strengthening laws regulating the types and amounts of e-waste that can be sent to landfills. According to the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse (ERCC), 20 states have landfill bans for various types of e-waste. Massachusetts was the first to institute a ban in 2000. The most recent state, Pennsylvania, began enforcing its ban on January 23, 2013.

In 2003, California became the first state to implement mandatory recycling of some electronics. Twenty-four other states followed in the next decade. Each state varies in what it regulates and who is responsible for the waste. Aside from California and Utah, most states put the onus of recycling on manufacturers -- not the consumer or business user -- requiring them to have a recycling and/or reclamation program.

In response, electronics manufacturers Panasonic, Sharp, and Toshiba founded the Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company (MRM), which is committed to aiding manufacturers meeting regulatory compliance and building recycling programs across the country. At present, 25 other manufacturers participate in MRM, including Phillips, Sanyo, Vizio, and Mitsubishi. MRM runs recycling programs for manufacturers in 19 states. It also has a national program for consumers, though only a few manufacturers participate. The organization estimates that it has recycled 290 million pounds of electronics since its founding in 2007.

Other electronics manufacturers have their own individual programs. Apple offers trade-ins and recycling to consumers, and has a program for businesses, though it does not offer information on that publicly. Sony has a similar program. HP and Dell both require consumers to mail back products for recycling. However, each also offers asset recovery services for businesses. Beyond recycling the hardware, both programs promise secure handling and destruction of proprietary data.

EPA is incentivizing manufacturers to recycle their electronics through a program called the Sustainable Materials Management Electronics Challenge. Through the challenge, manufacturers aim to achieve a 100 percent recycling rate of their used products by the third year of their participation. So far, 10 companies are on board: Best Buy, Dell, LG Electronics USA, Nokia, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Sprint Nextel, and Staples.

On the more local level, some cities and counties throughout the U.S. have been hosting “recycling day” events. Arizona holds semi-annual Technology Recycling Events in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. The collections are tax deductible and portions of the donations will be used to support state education programs. Boston city officials announced a take-back program for residents on March 23.

In other cases, recycling events are being held by high schools like Carlsbad High in San Diego, Calif., and St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Longview, Texas, to raise money.

Small businesses are also stepping in to help fill the need. AnythingIT in Fair Lawn, N.J., has been in the business of recycling electronics for 20 years, although the company was initially a buyer and seller of electronics. Zero Export Recyclers in Mt. Holly, Pa., has been dissecting and reclaiming electronic components for 12 years. Originally, the company worked largely with IT companies and other businesses, but is now accepting drop-offs from the general public and other local businesses

Credit: anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Credit: anankkml at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

The EPA estimates that 1.2 billion pounds of electronics were recycled in 2011. In 2012, Pennsylvania, despite not having a formal law in place until this year, recovered 28.5 million pounds of e-waste. Illinois recycled 46 million pounds of electronics. Nearly 44 million pounds of e-waste were diverted from landfills in Texas last year.

While those numbers sound great, it should be noted that 1.2 billion pounds is only 25 percent of the total amount of e-waste generated in 2011, with 3.6 billion pounds entering landfills. The Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER) sees this as a lost opportunity economically. The group, composed largely of waste management and recycling companies, released a study in January that claims recycling the remaining waste could create up 42,000 new U.S. jobs.

The study, as well as the formation of the group itself, was done with the intention of promoting awareness and support for the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (H.R. 2284). The bill, proposed to Congress in 2011 but never enacted, bans companies from exporting junked electronics to landfills in under-developed countries that lack the infrastructure, technology or know-how to properly dispose of them.

Another economic benefit of e-waste recycling comes from the raw material recovery. EPA claims that one ton of circuit boards contains between 40 and 800 times the amount of gold mined from one metric ton of ore. In addition, the recycling of 1 million cell phones has the potential to recover up to 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium, and 20,000 pounds of copper.

Even more critical is the recovery of rare earth elements (REEs). Electronic devices have become increasingly dependent on the use of REEs. These minerals are also used in many clean energy technologies, as well as for defense, communications, and healthcare equipment.

While most REEs are not particularly rare in terms of volume, accessing them is difficult except in key geographies. In June 2012, China, which supplies 97 percent of the world's REEs, put out a white paper detailing how its cache was running low, and what veins remained were not of good quality. Recycling electronics provides an opportunity to reclaim and reuse these minerals. This will help keep the cost of REEs (and thus electronics) down, as well as reduce our dependency on China to make them.

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