Emerging and Taking Root

Features - Emerging Segments

Obsolete electronics, building materials, and tires are now commonly recycled, creating entirely new industry sectors.

July 17, 2013
Brian Taylor
Above, a selection of old Apple Macintosh computers. The Macintosh 128k was released to the market in 1984, the Macintosh Plus was released in 1986 and the Macintosh Classic was released in 1990.© Laur-Kalevi Tamm | iStock.com; thinkstock.comww

The roots of Recycling Today magazine, founded as Secondary Raw Materials in 1963, lie in providing coverage of the industrial metals and paper recycling markets. During the course of its 50-year history, the publication has stayed true to those roots while also covering the growth of numerous emerging recycling sectors.

Whether driven by entrepreneurial opportunities, government incentives or, more recently, corporate sustainability initiatives, several additional recycling sectors have been established throughout the preceding half century.

The recycling of plastic, tires, glass, construction and demolition (C&D) materials and a wide array of postconsumer electronics are now widespread in the U.S. and around the world, conserving resources, creating jobs and introducing secondary raw materials into the manufacturing process.

From the Ground Up
Builders have long rehabilitated buildings or used the rubble of ruined cities to harvest materials for a new structure.

Other than reclaiming visible scrap metals and high-value or eye-catching fixtures, construction and demolition contractors did not necessarily have formal means of recycling most materials when Recycling Today started out in 1963.

Demolition contractors have the potential to recycle large amounts of material, given the time and the knowledge. When contractors from several parts of the country got together in 1972 and 1973 to found the National Association of Demolition Contractors (now the National Demolition Association, NDA), the new organization gave them the ability to share more information on recycling practices.

While contractors focused on the business reasons to recycle, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Solid Waste was discovering the enormous amounts of construction and demolition materials taken to landfills each year—from 130 to 330 million tons, depending on how it is defined.

Much of the material being landfilled was concrete, asphalt and wood. In some parts of the country, entrepreneurs were finding ways to recycle these different materials, but progress in the 1980s and early 1990s was sporadic.

In the 1990s, quarrying trade magazine editor Bill Turley was among those reporting on this emerging sector. He urged his publisher at the time to start a magazine dedicated to the field, began organizing industry events and eventually helped form the Construction Materials Recycling Association in 1995. Turley still serves as executive director of the group, which changed its name in 2013 to the Construction Demolition Recycling Association (CDRA).

The Recycling Today Media Group, observing the same growth in the construction sector, started C&D Recycler magazine in 1999, changing the name to Construction & Demolition Recycling in 2003. Turley served as associate publisher of the publication for several years.

From 1990 onward, the amount of concrete, asphalt and wood recycling grew steadily, as did investments in automated material recovery facilities (MRFs) designed specifically to handle mixed loads of materials discarded at construction and demolition job sites.

Another boost to the sector was provided by the green building boom, as property owners and general contractors quickly accepted the notion that an energy- and resource-efficient building offered a good return on investment. Scorecards established by the U.S. Green Building Council include points for the recycling of scrap materials generated at construction sites.

Polymer Progress
The founding of Recycling Today in the 1960s coincides with a boom in the plastics industry that eventually led to momentum in plastic recycling activities. (See “Plastic Progress,” starting on page 36.)

Another booming polymer application during the past 50 years has been the growth of synthetic tires in a nation where the number of vehicles on the road has risen steadily.

Entrepreneurs in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s focused on tire resale and retreading, with some pioneers also promoting the energy recovery value of scrap tires. In Baltimore, the Emanuel Family of Tire Cos. started in 1957 and has added recycling services continually as scrap tire processing technology and end markets have changed.

Tire recycling was driven as well by the problems involved with tire disposal. Tires do not quickly break down when landfilled and, because of their shape, they often collect methane gas and rise to the surface of landfills. Stored in the open, rainwater collects in tires, attracting mosquitos and other pests.

The problematic nature of tires led to statewide tire recycling fees and collection systems, though at times these policies led to more stockpiling than actual recycling. States such as Arizona and California enacted tire recycling fees as early as 1990, but this did not immunize them from disposal problems.

Several tire stockpile fires occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, including one in Tracy, Calif., that started in 1998 and was not extinguished until 26 months later in December of 2000.

Processing scrap tires to prepare marketable secondary commodities proved challenging, as tires are specifically made to hold together during their useful lives.

Eventually, in the 1990s and into the new century, the range of processing methods used to shred tires and then separate the steel, crumb rubber, polymer fibers, oils and carbon black evolved and improved, with several end uses gaining preference in the marketplace.

The largest end market, tire-derived fuel, most commonly requires only the shredding process. The production of crumb rubber, recyclable steel and carbon black involve additional processing steps.

A series of entrepreneurs have been involved in the sector, with some staking out regional success and others doing so only temporarily. Attempts with experimental technologies, many centered on pyrolysis, also have been a part of the tire recycling story.

Since 2000, Liberty Tire Recycling, Pittsburgh, has consolidated a significant amount of tire processing capacity in the United States, claiming to recycle more than 110 million tires per year as of 2013.

C&D Recycler magazine, founded in 1999, was renamed Construction & Demolition Recycling in 2003.

Unplugged and Rebooted
The number of electronic goods in the average U.S. household has skyrocketed since 1963, eventually providing a recycling opportunity that has powered an entirely new sector.

In its “2012 Scrap Yearbook,” the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), Washington, D.C., refers to electronics recycling as having shown tremendous growth since the turn of the century. This growth has added up, as of 2010, to a $5 billion business employing more than 30,000 people.

Electronics recycling entrepreneurs in the 1980s and 1990s often concentrated on harvestable computer components or locating and extracting precious metals found on circuit boards.

The growth in electronics recycling in the past 12 years has been boosted by state landfill diversion laws on the one hand and the rising value of secondary commodities on the other.

Massachusetts banned the landfilling of lead-heavy cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors in 2000. Three years later, California established a system to collect fees and mandate the recycling of a larger range of consumer electronics. Some 20 additional states have followed with varying rules or systems.

The antilandfill vigilance coincided with rising values for metal and plastic scrap from electronics, which attracted more entrepreneurs and investment bank financing into the sector. As well, electronics producers who wanted to tout results in their corporate sustainability reports began paying more attention to how they could both help assist recycling collection and use collected metals or plastics as raw materials.

In just the 13 years since Massachusetts banned CRTs from landfills, major investments in electronics recycling have resulted in sophisticated facilities that may include refurbishment activity, harvesting of marketable components and shredding and processing to create secondary raw materials all under one roof.

Two certification systems now compete to allow electronics recyclers to prove they recycle safely and in an environmentally sound fashion.

While entrepreneurs remain key players in the electronic scrap sector, coast-to-coast operators like Sims Recycling Solutions, AERC Recycling Solutions and Electronic Recyclers International operate numerous facilities and serve clients on a national or international basis.