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What role should shredding play in the recycling of electronic scrap?

August 16, 2006

Electronic scrap encompasses a wide range of products that are composed of a number of different materials.

For some electronics recyclers, electronic scrap starts and ends with computers and computer related equipment, such as CPU units, monitors, printers and peripheral equipment. Other electronics recycling firms may accept anything with a plug. Devices such as television sets, radios and smaller home appliances may be acccepted along with computers, monitors and printers at some recycling facilities, while still others may take in telecom equipment, ranging from cellular phones to industrial equipment, as well.

Along with the wide range of products with varying values, electronics are composed of a combination of highly valuable materials (metals); less valuable, yet still marketable materials (plastics); and more challenging materials (leaded glass).

Additionally, many recyclers also say that the quality and value of electronic devices can vary greatly depending on the point of origin. For instance, electronics from a corporate/private company setting may have significant resale value, while computers and other electronics collected from the municipal side may have less value.

However, as more electronics enter obsolescence, a growing number of companies is attempting to refurbish and resell valuable components from these devices, while others are shredding them to recover raw materials.

WHETHER TO SHRED. Shredding, one avenue that many recyclers take, can be a familiar approach to long-time recyclers. However, some question at what level shredding of electronics should take place.

Mike Magliaro, executive vice president of LifeCycle Partners, Merrimack, N.H., says that prior to shredding, a company may remove as much plastic, copper, aluminum and ferrous as possible for refining or recycling.

Mark Matza, vice president of Fortune Plastic & Metal, Jersey City, N.J., says that a significant amount of collected electronics either can be completely refurbished and resold or stripped of valuable components that can also be resold. While this approach is potentially more time consuming for electronics recyclers, it often is a more enticing option for generators, as it provides a source of revenue that can offset the costs associated with shredding.

As a number of electronics recyclers note, labor costs can be significant when disassembling equipment, so knowing the type of equipment that is coming through the doors could help determine a recycler’s approach.

Amanda Hale, with United Recycling Industries (URI), a large electronics recycling firm in the Chicago area, says the company is seeing exponential growth in the amount of obsolete electronics.

URI handles between 35-40 million pounds of electronic scrap per year. After ascertaining the status of the equipment, workers at the plant either refurbish whole units or strip out components that can be resold.

While URI looks for devices with resale value among the equipment it receives, the company also operates shredders. URI has two shredding lines: one for general electronics, which runs about 40 hours per week, and one for monitors.

Mick Schum, president of WeRecycle, Meriden, Conn., agrees that electronics are a growing component of the recycling stream. The company, which has been in business for nearly three-and-a-half years, has seen the volume of incoming electronics grow in the last two years. The company does not offer shredding on site, though it works with a number of companies that provide the service. WeRecycle dismantles and markets components from much of the electronics it receives. Depending on where the material comes from, the reuse opportunities vary.

"From the private sector, between 20 [percent] to 40 percent of the material can be refurbished," Shum notes. From municipalities, however, the figure drops significantly to well below 10 percent.

While WeRecycle does not shred material on site, Shum says that the company dismantles the systems so that many of the individual components, such as copper yolks, plastic casings and the glass, are segregated, improving the marketability of the shredded material.

Although WeRecycle currently sends material that can’t be disassembled further to an outside vendor for shredding, Shum says the company is in the process of obtaining permits from the state of Connecticut that would allow it to shred in house.

Chip Slack with Intechra, an asset recovery firm based in Carrollton, Texas, also sees significant value in equipment from the private sector. His company is able to extract value out of roughly half of the equipment it receives from the private sector.

The Data Angle

The safe destruction and disposal of a growing stream of electronic scrap and computer storage media is now a major recycling priority in this and many other countries. In the United States alone, more than 5 million personal computers will be relegated to the scrap heap in 2007, according to the National Safety Council.

Often, those computers are loaded with confidential data, such as names, bank accounts, Social Security numbers, tax returns and more.

Companies now have to contend with a host of government regulations including Sarbanes-Oxley, Graham-Leach-Bliley, HIPAA and FACTA. In response, companies are stockpiling their old discarded computers, using expensive storage space. Companies are also increasingly reluctant to donate their old computers to charities because of the potential expense and risk involved.

A new breed of data security company, such as Actfirst Shredding, Livingston, N.J. is cropping up in response to this problem. These companies shred storage media (either disks or tapes). The small pieces of scrap discharged by the shredders are melted for plastic or metals recovery.

While complete shredding of these devices is a critical part of the data destruction process, the availability of shredders that are up to the task can be limited. The problem is that many forms of electronic media are extremely tough on certain styles of shredders, which could be quickly destroyed themselves.

To address the problem, manufacturers such as the company of which I am president, Franklin Miller Inc., Livingston, N.J., have developed specialized shredders that have proven capable for this job.

Our Taskmaster line includes several models of shredders that are designed to completely shred storage media, backup tapes, hard drives and electronic components of all types.

A shredder designed to tackle electronics should feature an extremely rugged, high-torque shredding mechanism, as the Taskmaster does.

For customers of electronics shredding companies, there is no match for the reassurance of seeing a hard drive going into this unit and coming out in 1,001 pieces.

—Bill Galanty

Slack says a growing number of electronic assets are ending up in developing countries. Part of the reason, he says, is that there is not enough shredder capacity in the United States to handle the material. Additionally, Slack says, "There will be a shortage of high quality IT disposal organizations that provide legitimate addition to the customers." This means ensuring that the equipment is handled properly and that information is securely destroyed.

SHREDDER SHORTFALL? MaSer Corp., baseed in Marblehead, Mass., handles demanufactured and shredded electronic scrap from throughout North America. Lauren Roman, the company’s executive vice president, notes that MaSeR’s process allows it to delaminate material, liberating the various raw materials.

Roman also says that few electronics recyclers have shredder capacity presently.

One possibility is that market-oriented reasons account for North America’s lack of shredder capacity.

First, the demanufacturing of electronic equipment it is a time consuming and expensive process. Adding a shredder to an existing demanufacturing operation would require a significant capital expense. Many facilities may also have space constraints. Additionally, after the electronics have been demanufactured and the remaining material shredding, what results is often of so little value that a smelter or refiner will charge to accept it.

Another issue is ensuring enough volume of incoming electronics to make purchasing and running a shredder economical. Roman speculates that a company would need to handle around 5 million pounds of electronic scrap per year to cost justify the capital outlay.

Yet another issue is the amount of whole electronics that are exported to developing nations. Competition among electronics recyclers remains tight, and with more material being shipped offshore, it is a challenge to compete with the relatively cheap manual labor in developing countries.

While the issue of whether to install additional shredding capacity is fraught with uncertainty, the biggest issue affecting electronics recyclers is the amount of material shipped offshore.

Matza says that if the United States eliminated the export of unshredded electronics, the country would have a shredder capacity shortfall.

EXPORT INFLUENCE. Despite the potential drawbacks associated with adding shredder capacity, recyclers are interested in installing them, especially as pressure from government agencies to restrict electronic exports grows. However, not all electronics recyclers are encouraged by the prospect.

Robin Ingenthron, president of the World Reuse, Repair and Recycling Association (WR3A), Middlebury, Vt., questions many of the prevailing figures regarding electronic scrap. As for the perception that all the electronic scrap being shipped offshore ends up as hazardous waste in developing countries, he points out that recent research performed by the WR3A shows that a majority of the electronic scrap that is shipped offshore, especially monitors, is actually reused.

As for the notion that adding shredder capacity in the United States would reduce the amount of monitors and other electronic scrap shipped to developing countries, Ingenthron says that end markets for the leaded glass found in computer monitors are minimal. In fact, he says that there is essentially only one large maker of monitors, and it only uses a small percentage of the recovered material in its manufacturing process. While the leaded glass can go to a lead smelter, it would drive up the cost that smelters charge to accept the material.

"Shredders usually don’t add value," Ingenthron says. "My hunch," he continues, "is that there is less interest (in using shredders) now than there was two to three years ago."

What might stir companies toward greater use of shredders would be a more concerted effort at the state or national level to curtail the export of e-scrap. While this is far from unlikely, offshore buyers’ demand for reusable electronics remains strong.

The author is senior and Internet editor of Recycling Today. He can be reached at