Processing electronic scrap is extremely challenging—the infeed material is ever-changing, with varied circuit board colors and multiple types of plastics used.
“Manufacturers are producing green, yellow, blue and red circuit boards, and we even see some black circuit boards now,” says Phillip Kennedy, vice president of Premier Surplus Inc., an information technology asset disposition (ITAD) services provider and electronics recycler based in Dawsonville, Georgia.
As a result of the varied infeed material, the material recovery division of Premier Surplus employed manual sorting, ultimately focusing on the high-value product, printed circuit boards (PCBs). “We are urban mining, searching for gold, copper, aluminum, steel and plastics, so they are not sent to the landfill,” he adds.
Premier Surplus started nearly 20 years ago, with Kennedy and his wife, Stephanie, operating the business out of their garage. In a time before smartphones, the Kennedys bid on and purchased used electronics for Premier Surplus to process. Kennedy traveled to auctions and phoned Stephanie, who would research the value of items online. This allowed him to know what items to bid on and the dollar amount to bid.
Electronics that could be refurbished were remarketed on eBay, but Premier Surplus had to buy in bulk, and the pallets of electronics included many materials that could not be refurbished and resold.
“We had to find a way to generate value for the leftovers,” Kennedy says.
The answer lied in recycling these end-of-life devices.
Through trial and error, the Kennedys quickly learned the electronic scrap business and became more efficient in recycling what could not be refurbished, even though everything was processed manually. In 2006, the husband-and-wife team moved operations out of the garage to a larger shed. By 2009, the company moved to a 20,000-square-foot facility, at which point Premier Surplus added a shredder to increase processing efficiency and sought ISO and R2 (Responsible Recycling) certifications, which it obtained in 2012. Taking in and processing more material, the operation moved to a 50,000-square-foot building in 2012.
Part of Premier Surplus’ growth was driven by bringing on new accounts in various sectors to keep a consistent flow of material. “We have a good portfolio of customers, which includes manufacturers, schools, governmental agencies and larger corporations,” Kennedy says.
Mark Neitzey, national sales director for Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, Norwalk, Connecticut, says, “I’m really impressed by how well Premier Surplus knows the business and by their passion. Many of the employees know every job within the company, and they all do the work well.”
Part of Premier Surplus’ success lies in its ability to find customers to purchase the materials it recovers. In 2009, the company recognized it needed to increase volume to reach certain customers.
“We spoke to smelters to see if they would accept 8,000 pounds of material a month,” Kennedy says. “They required 25,000 pounds per month before they would consider us.”
Around the same time, Premier Surplus saw the electronics entering its operations change. Smaller items, such as modems, printers and telephones, were increasing in volume. Often these items would be disassembled and recycled by hand, but the increase in Premier Surplus’ volume made this impractical. “You can recycle a modem by hand pretty efficiently, but you cannot get caught up if you have thousands waiting,” Kennedy says.
At that time, Premier Surplus processed about 20,000 pounds of e-scrap per day using manual sorting after the shredding and screening steps. Hand sorting, however, limited its growth potential.
“Premier Surplus needed a complete automated circuit with an optical sorter to take their operation to the next level,” says Eric Thurston, North American sales manager, metals, for Tomra Sorting Inc., who is based out of Louisville, Kentucky.
To expand the business, Premier Surplus moved into a 137,000-square-foot facility, which houses multiple divisions, including its recycling division that featured a new automated shredding and sorting circuit. Built to improve the company’s sorting efficiency and material purity, the circuit adds an eddy current separator and a Tomra Autosort Fines optical sorter after the shredder.
“Our metals customers only want metals, and our plastics customers only plastic. That is what Autosort Fines delivers,” Kennedy says.
According to Tomra, the automated circuit expanded the company’s electronic scrap processing capacity by 300 percent compared with manual sorting. Today, the operation recycles up to 60,000 pounds of electronic scrap every day and, in 2019, the company recycled 20 million pounds of material overall.
Before selecting each component for the automated sorting system, Kennedy extensively researched the different options to ensure he purchased the right sorting solution for Premier Surplus’ current and future needs. He also received expertise from Peter Prinz, owner of Florida-based Prinz Consulting, who has 45 years of recycling experience.
Premier Surplus installed a 217-foot circuit, which includes a triple-shaft shredder from SSI Shredding Systems Inc., Wilsonville, Oregon, to liberate materials. A postshredder screen removes fines, and a cross-belt magnet recovers ferrous metal from the screened material.
“Pulling the fines from the flow at the beginning helps to improve the circuit’s efficiency,” Tomra’s Thurston says.
The remaining material is conveyed to a Javelin eddy current from Industrial Magnetics Inc., Boyne City, Michigan, for aluminum and copper recovery prior to sending material to the optical sorter.
Prinz says that in his experience, the Tomra sorter “offers 30 to 40 percent better recovery than other sorters” and that the Autosort Fines optical sorter can recover between 75 and 90 percent of materials on the first pass.
According to Tomra, the optical sorter gives Premier Surplus the ability to selectively sort plastics, lower grade PCBs, wire and metals with high purity.
Kennedy says the optical sorter’s flexibility has been helpful with the evolving electronic scrap stream. “Manufacturers are using green, yellow, blue, red and brown circuit boards, and that is the primary product our customers want,” he says.
The Autosort Fines combines electromagnetic, near-infrared (NIR) and visible spectroscopy technologies to sort material by color and composition. “Our Flying Beam technology evenly distributes the light over the entire belt for better recognition,” Thurston says. “The sensor detects the specific wavelength of light in NIR, and algorithms classify the material to decide whether to drop or eject material.”
During the initial sort, Premier Surplus drops the plastic and ejects the circuit boards, wire and nonferrous material. “We are getting about 95 percent material recovery on the first pass, which is better than we anticipated,” Kennedy says.
Neitzey adds that the optical sorter makes it easy for Premier Surplus to run ejected materials for further processing, which enables the company to sort product packages, such as low-grade PCBs, wire, stainless and metals.
Kennedy says Premier Surplus has created its own “recipes” for running batches of devices, such as printers.
“The machine’s customer interface stores different sorting programs and allows the operator to quickly switch between programs to match the material stream,” Thurston says.
With nearly two years of operating the new circuit, Kennedy says Premier Surplus is confident it selected the right equipment for its automated circuit.
He adds that the company’s team “stands ready to do our part in keeping material out of the landfill and, at the same time, protecting our customers’ data and reputation.”