How sustainability can charge up electronics recycling

Features - Scrap Metals Supplement

In the drive toward environmental sustainability and reduced liability, the fate of electronic components is of increasing concern.

Gannon & Scott processes a variety of e-scrap, such as high-grade printed circuit boards for telecommunications. Photo: Gannon & Scott Inc.

Many scrap recycling companies handle electrical or electronic components, directly or indirectly, including those that process computer and electronic equipment and household and industrial goods and those that process manufacturing scrap.

Recycled components can contain a range of metals with significant intrinsic value, but these metals may represent only a fraction of the components’ contents. Gold and other precious metals (PMs) often are surrounded by plastics or other materials, making sustainable recovery challenging.

The dynamics of the recycling market are changing with advances in environmentally sound recycling of e-scrap and greater involvement of global manufacturers in sustainability.

The e-scrap opportunity

E-scrap recyclers perform a valuable function in reducing the ratio of plastics and other materials in the PMs stream when they disassemble old computers and other nonworking equipment, removing drivers and power supplies from chassis and separating integrated circuits (ICs) and other components from circuit boards, for example. This can greatly improve the efficiency of thermal recycling operations.

As the U.S. moves to more hybrid and electric vehicles, automakers and suppliers, who already are interested in sustainability, could further stimulate the greening of end-of-product-life recycling. On conventional vehicles, spent catalytic converters, which depend on precious metal catalysts, already are targeted heavily for recycling, as are lithium-ion batteries and circuitry on electric vehicles.

The new thermal reduction unit at Gannon & Scott’s Rhode Island facility features advanced environmental controls and can recover high-value metals even from lower-grade scrap materials, the company says. Photo: Gannon & Scott Inc.

E-scrap is a major opportunity, and components with a higher ratio of high-value metals produce the best returns. High-density circuit boards always are worth more than simpler circuits. According to a report by Market Research Engine, Deerfield Beach, Florida, the value of e-scrap generated globally is projected to grow at about 23 percent per year, reaching more than $76 billion by 2022.

Manufacturers of mobile devices already offer direct recycling-exchange programs for customers, and manufacturers of other, especially smaller, consumer or household products could follow suit. Still, most e-scrap starts out mixed with other materials, so e-scrap value depends, in large part, on disassembly labor, material separation and downstream efficiency.

Upstream, many manufacturers already recycle scrap from production processes, especially residual materials containing valuable metals. High volumes of concentrated e-scrap containing PMs also are generated whenever aftermarket components, such as circuit boards or military replacement parts, exceed their rated shelf life and must undergo certified destruction. They also are generated in mass recalls of electronic products. Samsung, for example, heralded its responsible recycling policies for its recalled Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in March 2017 after recalling 1.9 million of the devices in 2016.

Globally, e-scrap generation has been growing by more than 40 million tons per year for some time, according to a report from Market Research Engine, and the advent of more environmentally responsible methods that maximize recovery of PMs can create new opportunities for e-scrap disassembly operations and those that want to focus on more energy-efficient, “greener” recycling.

Getting the best return

E-scrap is a dynamic and ever-changing stream of material and is best managed when recyclers and reclaimers work closely together to establish the most accurate, cost-efficient and safe methods to recover the valuable materials contained.

Generally, e-scrap recyclers will want to consider two main factors: economic and environmental, health and safety (EHS).

On the economic front, factors include the volume, types and grades the recycler handles as well as available resources to manage material. Segregation by grade is helpful because it provides for better tracking of yields produced by reclaimers. It also allows recyclers to supply the appropriate grade of material best suited to the processing capabilities of a reclaimer. Yet, while most industry professionals agree that 100 percent reclaim preparation (automated or manual separation) provides the most accurate results, the trade-off is that it is more costly. So where is the tipping point?

For most materials, the guideline is that e-scrap products with a gross combined PMs and copper value of at least $8 to $10 per pound are ideally suited for full reclaim processing. Materials with lower commodity values will be more cost-efficiently managed by shredding and sampling or outright sale. Additionally, any extraneous material that can be removed upfront will produce two reclaim benefits: removal of heavy parts (such as steel shielding, aluminum heat sinks and transformers), wire, bulk plastics and packaging will reduce overall reclaim costs, and some of these materials can be recycled and traded as separate commodities.

Regarding EHS, this is always a central focus for reclaimers. Protection of employees, the environment and process equipment is extremely important and especially challenging in highly regulated, heavy-industrial environments that incorporate foundry, thermal reduction, chemical and mechanical processes. Reclaimers generally will ask many questions about the e-scraps’ constituent materials and may request samples to evaluate further before accepting this material. Deleterious elements, such as beryllium, cadmium, mercury and others, are problematic for employee and environmental exposures.

The reclaimer also will evaluate how the material will impact EHS. For example, batteries and other sealed devices will pose a risk of explosion and toxic release in a thermal or shredding process. Those types of devices need to be removed and recycled or disposed of responsibly. The more information the recycler can provide and address upfront the better.

What’s at stake

Local availability of advanced thermal reduction services reduces the cost of recovering PMs while also helping to safeguard the environment. In contrast, shipping volumes of e-scrap halfway around the world for recycling is energy intensive, and the process can be laden with uncertainty. In developing countries and remote regions, e-scrap recyclers may operate with primitive methods and little government oversight. Without singling out any manufacturers, CBS News chronicled the practice of open burning of e-scrap in China on “60 Minutes,” available at Small-time operators cook printed circuit boards over open fires outdoors, and chemicals from extraction baths pollute the ground and water supply.

Uncontrolled combustion of e-scrap potentially can vaporize large quantities of semivolatile toxic compounds and produce halogenated organic pollutants, including dioxins and furans.

A laboratory study conducted by the University of Cincinnati and co-authored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that combustion produced a mixture of aromatic and aromatic amine organic compounds of C6-C16. Combustion of PMMA (polymethyl methacrylate, also known as acrylic or acrylic glass) cellphone casings and other plastic from e-scrap were examined separately.

Although most plastics begin to melt at relatively low temperatures, combustion produces low-levels of acids, which should be captured and neutralized. In addition, thorough combustion is required to reduce or eliminate byproducts, such as benzene compounds. Yet at the same time, combustion processes must be controlled to avoid the high-temperature formation of toxic byproducts.

Most thermal recycling operations have been in place for years and rely on tray furnaces, and some may use afterburners as secondary treatment of combustion byproducts before discharge to the atmosphere. Operators often are reluctant to upgrade to cleaner or more efficient furnaces, which are subject to newer, more stringent environmental regulations.

More responsible recycling

Gannon & Scott, however, continues to develop environmentally responsible thermal reduction processes. Throughout the past 98 years, the company has designed and built or upgraded more than a half dozen high-capacity thermal reduction units that operate with advanced process and pollution controls.

We recently commissioned a three-stage thermal reduction unit at our Cranston, Rhode Island, facility. The TRu3Tec thermal reduction system is designed to operate at relatively low temperatures (about 1,400 to 1,500 F) to dramatically reduce the formation of hazardous byproducts. Plus, it features environmental and process controls to further reduce waste emissions. It is an enhancement of a similar system designed by Gannon & Scott for our metals recovery facility in Phoenix.

Gannon & Scott processes a variety of e-scrap, such as integrated circuits, memory sticks and connectors. Photo: Gannon & Scott Inc.

Pollution controls for the system include quenching, cyclonic separation, wet scrubbing of exhaust gases and dust collection. Both plants also are zero-discharge facilities for processing wastewater sludge and plating solutions.

For mixed products, such as circuit boards, that arrive at our facilities, any carbon-bearing organic compounds, plastics and combustibles, such as filters, will be destroyed in the thermal reduction process. Virtually no air emissions are produced because the system captures and treats combustion byproducts. Water-based scrubber solutions condition primary combustion byproducts so we do not discharge any harmful dioxins or furans to the atmosphere. We neutralize acids as a secondary part of the process. Our process evaporates water and treats residues internally so no hazardous waste is generated.

Most PMs recovery operations talk about zero waste as a goal. We are about as close to that goal as possible. Scrap metals from our burnt circuit boards are sent to metal recyclers. Even packaging materials and pallets are recycled. Almost the only waste that leaves our plant is from our cafeteria and a small amount of office waste.

Currently, about 70 percent to 80 percent of the residuals processed at our facilities come from manufacturers, primarily from electronics, automotive/aerospace, jewelry, minting and metal plating operations. The bulk of the remainder comes from end-of-life product recyclers, particularly e-scrap recyclers, and we expect this segment to grow with the economy and as the recycling industry expands and matures. The system also is used for certified destruction of obsolete electronic components.

Our goal is to deliver certifiable, tangible value for our customers, and intangible value with our environmentally responsible approach.

This is increasingly important to Fortune 500 companies, multinational corporations and others with sustainability policies. Our process not only minimizes wastes and emissions, but we also can economically recover value even from material containing only a small fraction of residual PMs.

Volume is key to value, especially at lower PMs percentages. We maximize recovery of residual PMs value from wipes, gloves, spent jars of conductive pastes; cathodes and ion exchange resins used in plating operations; and even floor sweepings from manufacturers. Even difficult-to-handle silicone rubber with PMs can be processed. We help suppliers recover value from fabric waste impregnated with low levels of silver, cloth that would otherwise go to a landfill. In this case, we turn what would be a hazardous waste into a return for the customer.

Such opportunities abound, and we believe new ones will emerge in the end-of-life e-recycling space. Enterprising recyclers can play an important role in identifying these opportunities and in creating win-win-win value for themselves, their customers and the environment.

Andrew McManus is general manager of Gannon & Scott. He has more than three decades of experience in engineering and recycling operations and precious metals recycling. Chris Jones, president of Gannon & Scott, has served the company in management roles for more than 25 years. He is a director and past chairman of the International Precious Metals Institute. More information is available at