Obsolete electronics likely represents the fastest-growing stream of scrap materials, which means recyclers, researchers and trade organizations alike are scrambling to keep pace with the growth.
In two different presentations at the Electronics Recycling Asia conference in November, a researcher from an institute in South Korea and the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI) talked about how their organizations are addressing the fast-paced growth.
ISRI’s Robin Weiner referred to obsolete electronics recycling as “the fastest-growing of recycling segments” and said some 3 to 4 million tons of electronic scrap are now collected annually in the United States, with “75 percent from the commercial or business sector.”
Weiner said 70 percent of the collected e-scrap is processed and recycled within the United States and “resold as specification-grade commodities.” Some 10 percent of the collected volume is refurbished or consists of components that are resold, while some 18 percent is exported as reusable equipment.
She said electronics processing fits into the U.S. role as the world’s largest scrap exporter. In 2011, the U.S. exported some $39.2 billion worth of scrap materials, with $11.5 billion of that total heading to China. “Scrap moves to where demand directs it, regardless of its original location,” Weiner added.
Weiner referred to third-party certification systems being adopted by electronics recyclers in the U.S., China and everywhere in the world as “a very positive development for a lot of reasons.” Weiner said ISRI preferred “positive intervention” when dealing with the rest of the world rather than advocating for “prohibitive” export bans. “Sharing best practices and offering certification overseas is the way to turn the tide on irresponsible recycling,” she commented.
Dr. Hyun Seon Hong, executive director of South Korea’s Institute for Advanced Engineering, provided an update on that country’s liquid crystal display (LCD) and other flat-panel recycling efforts.
Hong said that between 2005 and 2025, South Korea is expecting a “seven-fold increase in scrapped flat panels,” reaching a volume of 11 million units in 2025. The Institute for Advanced Engineering estimates that the LCD stream consists of 42 percent metals, 10 percent plastics and 48 percent “glass, circuit boards and other materials.”
Recycling challenges can include fasteners that make the dismantling process difficult and the “uncertain” value of fractions such as glass and the rare earth element indium.
Hong said the institute is conducting research to overcome these challenges, since the recycling of 13,000 tons of obsolete electronics can result in 12,000 tons of CO2 emissions reductions.
The Electronics Recycling Asia conference, organized by ICM AG, is being held Nov. 13-16 in Guangzhou, China.