Not going to waste: Old electronics collected for recycling

16 volunteers from non-profit recycling advocate ReGroup spent this Saturday at Soldotna’s Central Peninsula Landfill for ReGroup’s 7th annual electronics recycling drive. Jan Wallace, secretary of ReGroup and organizer of the drive, said that 125 local households, as well as six businesses and government agencies and three non-profits, brought non-functioning electronic devices, also known as e-waste, to be recycled.

“We had 120 monitors, a substantial number of computer towers, laptops, cell-phones, and quite a few microwave ovens,” said Wallace.

According to Total Reclaim Environmental Services, the recycling company that will process ReGroup’s shipment of e-waste, most of the material extracted from e-waste is returned to manufacturers to be reused for its original purpose. Before this happens, the material will pass through many hands. Wallace said that ReGroup has been careful in ensuring that these hands will be responsible ones.

ReGroup chose to work with Total Reclaim because of their e-steward certification, given by the waste-management watchdog group Basel Action Network. Named after the Basel Convention, a 1989 treaty signed in the Swiss city of Basel to control international hazardous waste trafficking, the Basel Action Network gives this certification to recyclers who meet standards of safety and environmental responsibility. Total Reclaim is Alaska’s only e-Steward certified recycler.

“They recycle all the parts of the electronics in an environmentally appropriate way,” said Wallace. “In other words, it’s not sent to third-world countries to pollute the water.”

Wallace was referring to the practices of recyclers who export waste to overseas stockpiles, frequently in Africa or China, in order to take advantage of loosely-monitored environmental policies and cheap, unregulated labor. This practice is common among recyclers of e-waste, which can be expensive, difficult, and hazardous to recycle.

Reilly Kosinski, Total Reclaim’s Environmental Health Specialist, said that his company’s compliance with the E-stewards standards ensures that their recycling practices are sound. Kosinski’s job is to monitor and evaluate his company’s recycling process against these standards.

When ReGroup’s shipment of e-waste leaves the Soldotna landfill, its first destination will be Anchorage, where it will be sorted and prepared for shipment to Seattle. Upon arrival at Total Reclaim’s Seattle de-manufacturing facility, the material’s first stop will be Total Reclaim’s Asset Management Department, which erases any data remaining in the devices. After being wiped, some items are disassembled to find components that may still be functional.

“Just under one percent of the material that comes in goes to our re-use department, where they test it to see if they can re-sell it,” said Kosinski. “Every item has its own little market.”

Hard-drives, batteries, and screens are then removed. Due to the mercury contained in the fluorescent lighting of LCD panels, screens are sent to a separate facility to be disassembled manually. The rest of the device is fed through a machine. At this stage, component metals are separated into two categories: ferrous metals, or alloys containing iron, and non-ferrous metals, without iron.

“Our shredder and our smasher, the two main processing machines we have down in Washington, have a series of magnets that help separate out the ferrous metals,” said Kosinski.

The non-ferrous metals found in circuit boards are the most valuable of the materials collected from e-waste. Kosinski said the category includes common materials such as aluminum and copper, as well as precious metals like gold, silver, and platinum.

When asked what technology Total Reclaim uses to sort out the various kinds of non-ferrous metals, Kosinski replied, “humans.” Although Total Reclaim does use technological processes in some metal-sorting, Kosinski said that “it’s definitely better to have a well-trained human do it if you want to maximize your value.”

While Total Reclaim does much of its recycling work at its own facilities under supervision from internal monitors like Kosinski, many e-waste components require special processing. Laptop screens are handled by a specialist, in this case by Total Reclaim’s sister company EcoLight, which also handles mercury-containing fluorescent lightbulbs. Most of the various battery types used in consumer electronics must also be passed to a specialist. Kosinski said that his job includes monitoring not only Total Reclaim’s own practices, but those of its partners.

“They have to comply with the e-stewards standards as well,” he said. “In every case, we have to ensure that everything is actually being recycled. And being done so in an environmentally and safety-conscious manner.”

Some of Total Reclaim’s partners are circuit board smelters, who receive the fragmented circuits that have been picked over by Total Reclaim’s workers and incinerate them to extract gold, copper, and other metals from the fine circuitry. According to Kosinski, a smelter can extract up to 18 different metals from a circuit board.

Total Reclaim deals with a variety of smelting operations, changing them in response to metal markets in different parts of the world. The recipients of their crushed circuit boards are frequently overseas.

“A lot of it (Total Reclaim’s export partnerships) changes based on who can give you the best value, but they still have to fit those e-steward certification standard requirements,” said Kosinski.

Some recyclers give circuit boards to workers who incinerate them in open fires and pick out the metals by hand, allowing toxins to escape from the smoke and ash into the nearby environment. By contrast, well-controlled incineration takes place in a closed environment, and e-steward standards require frequent atmospheric testing of the burn site.

“There’s a huge difference between doing it right and doing it wrong,” said Kosinski. “A lot of these smelters have gotten better and better at not only extracting all of the value from circuit boards, but also doing it in a responsible manner. Smelters now recover more value than the ones doing it the dirty way. At this point in time, you’re actually better off doing it right — you make more profit.”


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