As a rapidly growing portion of our waste stream, figuring out how to collect and recycle e-waste as efficiently as possible, and in an environmentally responsible manner, is a work-in-progress for the recycling industry.
The challenges of recycling old electronics are varied and plentiful according to Gary Diamond, President and CEO of Quantum Lifecycles Partners. They include everything from the changing regulatory landscape to competition from landfills and cheap recycling options in developing countries.
“Because we do recycling properly,” Diamond says, “it costs a little bit more. So one of the most difficult parts of this business for us is actually finding material to recycle.” Once sourced however, Diamond explains how processing e-waste presents its own set of challenges.
“The nature of electronics continues to change rapidly. What we received five years ago is drastically different to what we’re receiving today – and it’s going to be drastically different to what we receive five years from now. That requires upgrades and changes to processes and equipment, and it has an impact on capital decisions.”
How Recycling Old Electronics Has Changed
Some of the key changes Diamond has witnessed in electronics recycling since getting into the business in 2010 include:
- a major decline in the volume of tube-style TVs which, from a recycler’s perspective, has meant a decreased total weight – and decreased total available margin – of electronics being scrapped
- a reduction in the quality, and subsequent recycled commodity value, of electronics materials as manufacturers figure out ways to reduce production costs
- an increase in the number of products containing batteries, which require a significant amount of front-end labour to remove before mechanical processing
- a rise in the volume of electronics components manufactured from low-value plastics
“Recycling unwanted electronics is not like recycling an old aluminum can,” says Diamond. “It’s more like recycling an old can mixed with 15 other commodities. It’s a challenge to separate them. And since it can involve 10 different types of plastic, a lot of commodities are costly to process but yield very little in value.”
Hazardous materials like lead and mercury – inherent in many electronics – and the surprisingly large manual labour force required, only add to the challenge of recycling old electronics where safety and costs are concerned.
Meanwhile, hurdles outside the walls of the processing plants extend to:
- a need for more effective infrastructure to ensure e-waste is sent to the proper facilities (landfill bans and stewardship programs help with this),
- educating the public on what recycled commodities are, and the value they represent, and
- making businesses aware of the potential for a data breach should they neglect to deal with a reputable electronics recycler
Challenges in Recycling Call for Creative Solutions
But with great challenges come even greater solutions. And as far as Diamond is concerned, the e-waste recycling industry offers endless opportunity.
“Things are far more automated today than they were seven or eight years ago. And we now have the opportunity to process materials a great deal further – to a far cleaner and more saleable commodity.”
When it comes to overcoming the challenges of recycling old electronics, you have to be creative according to Diamond.
“You’ve always got to be thinking about doing things differently and better. Promoting a culture of continuous improvement is a big part of that. And because everything we touch represents a cost, maintaining a facility that’s incredibly efficient in terms of getting material in as a whole unit – and out again as a saleable commodity – is vital. That’s what Quantum does. We designed our company that way, and that’s how we continue to run it.”