One Year Later

Features - Scrap Industry News

A California electronics recycler looks at the experience of implementing SB20.

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March 23, 2006

It’s been a year now since SB20 got under way. It seems like a long time since the first stakeholder meeting and the celebration at the Capitol to honor Sen. Byron Sher, the bill’s sponsor, for his persistence in getting such an important bill passed—long before the year or so of stakeholder meetings and "fixes" to the bill, such as SB50.

I think we’ve all resolved to call this thing SB20, even though SB50, which was one of the "fixes" to SB20, defines much of the meat and potatoes of the actual principle of the bill. For this article, and perhaps forever more, we will stick with SB20. After all, we want to make sure Sher continues to get his credit.

After a year, where is California in this race to become a national leader in recycling stewardship, advanced recovery fees and the governed process of endless paperwork?

In January 2005 the monitors and TVs began to trickle in slowly. Recyclers were jockeying for position, and new businesses were popping up quicker than Clint Eastwood could paint the town red. Some have already gone out of business, realizing that it was too good to be true. The fancy façade of a beautiful Web site with little more behind it than an office and small warehouse couldn’t sustain the real need. But others have, at least for now, continued to hang in there. By midway through 2005, most of the participants were bulging with materials, but not all of them were applicable to SB20’s payment system.

RECYCLING STEWARDSHIP. When SB20 got started, a little demon or two hovered in the wings over the best of intentions. Few people saw them coming.

Recycling under SB20 has primarily consisted of the collecting, disassembling and processing of CRT monitors and TVs. Laptops still appear to be worth more for their parts on the reuse market, while LCDs and plasma TVs just aren’t coming in yet. Front and rear projection TVs make up a reasonable percentage of the devices collected.

The initial "science" of recycling a CRT in a processing plant has changed a little from years past. ECS Refining, Santa Clara, Calif., is a fully permitted recycling facility and secondary smelter. In the old days of the Apple IIe and big metal encased monitors, the whole device went into the shredder, was reduced to about a 1-inch particle size, run under a magnet to remove the iron and then through an eddy current to liberate any nonferrous metals. A lot of glass and plastics were mixed in with the fractions that were headed to primary smelters. This meant that the leaded glass was generally going to a copper smelter instead of to a lead smelter.

The problem, naturally, was the lead in the glass. In a smelting operation, though the glass is needed for a flux, the lead ended up staying with the slag, which in many cases ended up in a landfill. This was also costly because the glass weight had no return value at a copper smelter.

The plastics that also stayed with the copper fraction are petroleum based and could be used to bring a furnace up to temperature. The shredded plastics had a BTU value and were a good use of "secondary" materials, but perhaps not the best in recycling.

Long before SB20 was law, some recyclers began dismantling CRT devices, largely because the primary copper smelters were no longer accepting the leaded glass mixed within the circuit board fraction. Even though the glass was valuable as a flux and the lead was safely inert within the slag, it no longer made "cents" to shred everything together, especially when there was also a need for this glass in "glass-to-glass" recycling applications or in some of the primary lead smelting facilities that were doing more secondary smelting using CRT glass and other leaded materials such as batteries, rather than solely relying on ore from the earth.

The disassembly of CRT devices is probably the best start to the recycling process, albeit a very crude operation, thanks in part to every legacy product out there being uniquely made and as difficult to dismantle as possible.

The breakdown of a CRT device yields these main components:

Plastics – PVC, ABS, polycarbonate, etc.

Glass – high sodium panel glass and frit welded to leaded glass, which is approximately 25 percent lead

Iron – band, internal shroud, protective covering

Circuit boards and wiring – copper-bearing fraction, gold, silver, palladium and other elements

Aluminum – heat sinks and other items, depending upon the product’s manufacturer

From a smelting perspective, these are known as contaminated "fractions" which, properly managed, are excellent feedstock into a primary smelting application for the three reasons mentioned above—flux value, BTU value and metals value—which, when blended with a primary ore feedstock, help reduce costs and the reliance on natural resources (by 25 percent) and help increase the return on the alloy content.

THE GOLD RUSH. It’s January 2005, SB20 becomes law and California began to experience the 1849 gold rush all over again.

The word on the street was the state was flush with cash from an ARF (advanced recovery fee) and there was $30 million dollars to be had just for filling out a little form to be a "collector" or a "recycler." Most "recyclers," by the way, are also a "dual entity," which means they act, naturally, as both a collector and a recycler.

By April 2005, almost 40 "approved and authorized" recyclers and more than 300 collectors had applied, were "audited" and were approved to participate in the payment system. The Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) and California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) were extremely busy visiting facilities and working through piles of paperwork, e-mails and phone calls to get business entities approved and into the system.

Monitors and TVs began coming apart at the seams almost by themselves. Plastics prices were sky rocketing, and the seemingly simple collection forms and transfer receipts were being filled out and sent to the state as if there was a statewide count down to the reporting period, so everyone could get paid for all the great work they were doing for the state.

Well, that ain’t exactly what happened. Those simple little forms—Application (form 186), Collection Log (form 198), Anonymous CEW Collection Log (form 198-SA), Transfer Receipt (form 197), Transfer Summary (form 197-S), Payment Claim (Form 196), Claim Worksheet A (form 196-A) and Claim Worksheet B (form 196-B)—requiring accurate collection and transfer dates, estimated weights of each device, California source documentation, namely a valid and complete name, street address and city, seemed to be a lot harder to fill out than many originally thought they would be.

When the California source happened to be the "ABC National Repair Depot," who is known to repair monitors and TVs received from all over the country, or if you were "Out Source International," shipping in materials from Oregon to its California facility, the staff at the CIWMB began seeing extraordinary claims that just didn’t make sense.

I remember people arguing with me that materials wouldn’t be coming in truckloads from out of state. Unfortunately, no matter how tight the accountability of the paper work requirements, questionable activities began very quickly, forcing the state to pull out the stops on some of its previous leniencies even for the collection and payment of abandoned materials left at Goodwill drop-off locations.

While this was unfortunate and caused a great deal of trouble for some of the well-intended companies, the temptations to see if something could get through the system were so great that, in a short time, everyone got hurt. That "one bad apple …" theory had taken a hold.

Fortunately, the state put the brakes on everything; however, it might have gone a little overboard. The message was now clearly being sent—if your paperwork, which is actually easy to complete, isn’t perfectly clear on California source data, no one is getting paid—18 pounds or 18,000 pounds. If the paperwork didn’t look right, you weren’t getting paid.

There seems to still be a period when one has the chance to be questioned about required information so it can be validated, but that is because the staff at the CIWMB is truly trying to do its best to work with everyone participating in the payment system.

By August, things seemed to be pretty well ironed out. But we still had the problem of abandoned materials and the issue of some companies desperately wanting to be designated by cities and municipalities as an approved collector. Both of these areas are now fairly well ironed out. Any perceived abuse will likely be detected early and all the participants will feel these affects, too. Let’s hope by now, many have learned their lesson or have already dissolved their participation status.

MORE THAN MONITORS. The little demons I was referring to earlier are related to all the other electronic material that comes along with the CEWs (covered electronic wastes) of SB20. Most businesses and households are storing complete computers and peripherals, not just monitors and TVs. When recyclers and collectors were jockeying for position in the market, the customer wanted someone to take all their old electronics, not just the CEWs.

Despite the growing concern of obsolete electronics being shipped overseas, the temptation to simply sell materials to the highest bidder outweighed, by a longshot, the rational of paying a recycler some 25 to 40 cents per pound to recycle it properly. Many of these new collectors and recyclers simply find it far too easy to collect the revenue, relying on what the buyers are telling them. There is no discrimination. This is a problem at the corporate level in big companies, all the way over to the non-profit sectors, whose goal, strangely enough, is to fight exactly what is happening overseas.

Because it is public record, I asked the CIWMB if there was any information it would like to share with you for the purposes of this article. There are a number of details that go into the reasons why the numbers are the way they are. Probably the primary reason that payments have not equaled claim amounts is the need to verify that the devices include California Source Documentation.

The money the state has collected under the ARF may seem like a lot, but it is clear that as collection and recycling activities grow, there is not much of a buffer between what has been collected, what has been claimed and what has yet to be claimed.

The goal of SB20 and the CIWMB is to be a good role model, not only for California, but for the country. The United States would be ill served by 50 different recycling policies, simply because of pride or because of an inability to orchestrate one good plan. Clearly each entity has what it believes to be the best idea and plan for the sound recycling of all obsolete electronics, not just monitors and TVs.

In order for a national plan to succeed, a lot of bugs must be worked out and a number of careful compromises will need to be made. The states that already have plans in place may not have the best plans, but they were bold enough to forge ahead to be the example, good, bad or indifferent. They have realized there is a problem.

These are excellent secondary materials that should be recycled, not stored in a landfill. But keeping the materials out of the landfill is the easy part. Getting them to environmentally sound secondary and primary smelting and recycling plants has been and will continue to be the biggest challenge from a financial perspective.

The author is vice president and general manager of United Datatech/ECS Refining, Santa Clara, Calif. He has been an active stakeholder helping the California Integrated Waste Management Board and the Department of Toxic Substance Control implement the state’s Electronics Recycling Law, known as SB20.