Millions of people are today enjoying new electronic devices, becoming familiar with a tablet, phone, PC, or television that was waiting under the tree. But just as this year’s bounty displaces a generation of older devices, so too will these new toys eventually be made to seem obsolete. They will reside in a box in the garage for a while. Then one day, during spring cleaning perhaps, it will be time to go.
And then what happens?
Consumers have a number of options for unwanted electronics—particularly mobile devices that still have some residual value and can be re-sold. But recycling is typically the only choice for older, bulkier electronics such as TVs and computers. Packed with hazardous materials, most e-waste is no longer accepted at landfills. Recycling it is a complex process.
We recently visited Total Reclaim, a large electronics recycler in Seattle, to learn about the un-building of our gadgets. It’s the largest of eight processing facilities around the state that participates in E-Cycle Washington, a 5-year-old program that offers handling of obsolete devices, paid for by their manufacturers under a 2006 state law. The program has handled more than 200 million pounds of e-waste, diverting it from landfills and ensuring that it isn’t shipped overseas to places with lax environmental and safety standards.
Total Reclaim takes in more than 100,000 pounds of unwanted electronics each day, on average, from E-Cycle Washington and the company’s commercial customers. (In addition to e-waste, the company handles appliances and lighting.) This facility is just one of hundreds like it around the world. It provides a glimpse of the huge and growing volume of e-waste our modern lives throw off with each ever-shorter technology “upgrade” cycle.
That’s part of why Total Reclaim is in the midst of a multi-million dollar upgrade of its own to both enhance working conditions—including new break rooms, bright white walls, and LED lighting—and to add more machinery to do what humans do now, faster, says Craig Lorch, co-owner of the 23-year-old company.
Removing the plastic covers from fax machines and printers, for example, is now a brute-force job. “You literally have to have someone break the pieces off physically,” Lorch says.
Total Reclaim runs 18 hours a day during the work week, and 10 hours a day on weekends to keep up with the relentless incoming volume. It employs about 120 people in electronics recycling.
“We need to be mechanizing where we can to keep that number within control, and also making sure that the work that people do is quality work and it’s something that humans should be doing, rather than machines,” Lorch says over the cacophony of machines and men breaking apart other machines.
Total Reclaim is an electronics factory working in reverse.
From the semi-trailers backed against the loading dock, a forklift driver unloads pallet after pallet loaded with CPU towers, monitors, and televisions—both the old, bulky cathode-ray tube units and some of the newer, slender display panels. They rise in a small mountain.
On one side, men are sorting the old machines into batches, and loading them onto a conveyor that takes them up to a platform. (A small percentage of items deemed to have some residual value—often from corporate customers doing upgrades—is channeled to the re-use department, where it is tested, wiped of data, and reformatted. It often finds another life in hospitals in the developing world or for local nonprofit groups.)
The quiet of the re-use department is a stark contrast to the clash and 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.