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clatter of disassembly. Up on the demolition platform, another group of men using hammers and screw guns removes the plastic covers, which are bailed up and sent off to a specialty plastics handler. They pull out the picture tubes, which, in another step, are carefully drained of chemical coolants. They sort the lead-bearing circuit boards, heat sinks, wires, and batteries into separate bins for further processing.
The next stop is the shredder.
“The shredder is like your paper shredder except the blades are two inches wide,” Lorch says. It’s also about two stories tall.
The metal-and-plastic carcasses, circuit boards, and certain other components go up another conveyor belt and into the massive, grinding machine. It’s the last time this stuff will be recognizable as “technology.” On the far end of the shredder, the e-waste again resembles raw material.
“We’re able to recover the copper separate from steel separate from the aluminum, and we’ve already pulled off the plastic cover, and anything of value or anything of potential hazard,” Lorch says.
A magnet collects 2-inch chunks of steel from the shredder waste stream. It’s ready to go directly to a steel mill, which Total Reclaim vets for environmental compliance. It does this with all of its downstream buyers, and asks them to do the same with their buyers.
“We try to get a couple layers deep to find out where the material goes until it is into a new product, or into a raw material,” Lorch says.
An “eddy current” created by an alternating magnetic field sorts out the aluminum, which is sent to another processor for further sorting and grinding.
Another step removes the heavier pieces of dust, laden with precious metals. Dust, in general, is a major issue at an electronics recycler. “You ever open up the back of your computer and look at the dust? Your household dust comes to me,” Lorch says.
At the end of the process, what remains are pieces of copper wire and small chunks of circuit boards. “The highest-value material is going to be in some of the smallest pieces,” he says. “There’s precious metals. There’s gold, palladium, platinum, in the teeny-tiny circuit boards.”
Total Reclaim sends it all to a precious-metals refiner, which either pays or charges the company based on how many grams of gold per ton the refiner is able to extract.
“If I send them a bunch of boards off of TVs, there’s almost no gold in it,” Lorch says. “There’s almost nothing of value, other than lead and copper. They’ll probably charge us to deal with it. Whereas, if you send something of super-high value—some old boards from military or whatever, where there’s a whole lot of gold—then you’re being paid a lot.”
From this end of the lifecycle, Lorch has an interesting perspective on the rise of “smart devices” and cheap computers. The early versions of smart toasters or vacuum cleaners, he says, have expensive circuit boards with lots of value.
“But eventually, they’re going to make that board cheaper and cheaper,” he says. “We’ve seen that in computers. There is not very much gold in a $300 computer. As time goes by, the value in the boards gets less and less.”
The quality of our ever-smarter devices may be declining, but the quantity of material coming into Total Reclaim and others like it shows no sign of slowing down.