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An Interview with an E-waste Recycler – Regulations, CRT Recycling, & More

March 7, 2013

The following is an interview between a Public Health student and a member of a California electronics recycling company:

Interview with an E-waste Recycler

What is the typical electronics recycling process?

Every electronics recycler has a unique way of doing things, but the general process is as follows:

  • E-waste is aggregated by a collector and sent to a recycler for end-of-life processing
  • E-waste is shredded into optimal sized pieces (about the size of a poker ship)
  • E-waste is segregated into different commodity types using a variety of different separation technologies.
  • The various commodities (plastic, steel, aluminum, glass, precious metals, etc) are accumulated and sold to manufactures to be made into new products.

Public e-waste collection events and fundraisers are very common these days. How do these work? What type of a collaboration is involved and how do the parties benefit?

Public e-waste collection events can be a very effective way to accumulate e-waste which can be resold as working electronics or sold as scrap to a downstream electronics recycler. Companies in CA that collect e-waste through public recycling events generally accept most kinds of electronic waste at no charge. This is a much needed service for the public, and it is a primary source of revenue for e-waste collectors.

Collectors can be for-profit or non-profit organizations. Public e-waste collection events tend to be more successful when people perceive that their electronics are being donated or recycled to benefit a charity or cause, so it is not uncommon for for-profit collectors to partner up with a non-profit or donate proceeds to the community or some other noble cause. Non-profit collectors usually use e-waste collection and recycling to create employment opportunities for their constituents, who may be veterans, developmentally disable people, or victims of poverty or abuse depending on the organization. Revenues generated from e-waste collection/recycling can also go towards funding other programs within the non-profit.

Collectors often separate the newer, more valuable electronics to be reused or harvested for components, and the rest is sent to a recycler for scrap value. Electronic devices and components that can be reused are much more valuable when sold into secondary markets.

What are the rules and regulations surrounding the e-waste business?

Each state has different laws, programs, and agencies that affect the management of electronic waste. All states are subject to the EPA’s hazardous waste laws which dictate how wastes are classified and how each classification of waste much be handled and disposed of. However, many states have developed more strict guidelines for the classification and management of the various waste types that supersede federal legislation. Some types of e-waste are considered “Hazardous Waste” and some are considered “Universal Waste” and each state is unique in how they must be treated.

About half of the states have developed and implemented formal electronics recycling programs, and all of them except CA are based on the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility or EPR. EPR rests on the theory that manufacturers should be responsible for recycling or disposing of their products once they have reached the end of their useful lives. The rationale behind EPR is that because the manufacturers profit by producing and selling the electronic devices, they should also be responsible for recycling them. One of the benefits of this concept is that, because manufacturers must bear the cost of recycling their products, there is incentive to make them easier to recycle. EPR legislation is the preferred model for a recycling program because it is relatively easy to implement, and it relies on the effectiveness of the private sector (ie the manufacturers) to fund the collection and recycling of e-waste rather than a government bureaucracy.

In the CA state electronics recycling program, which is unique from any other state, the financial burden of recycling electronics falls on the consumer. CA consumers pay a special tax when they purchase new electronic devices. This tax money goes into a fund reserved to reimburse participating recyclers that process electronics collected in the state of CA. The CA state recycling program collects the highest volume of e-waste out of any other state program, but critics of the program argue that the personnel and paperwork required to manage this type program are exorbitant.

What are some rules and regulations that benefit recyclers? Do any regulations harm recyclers? What would like to see happening in the future?

State recycling programs that mandate the recycling of e-waste, whether they are funded by manufacturers or consumers, are beneficial to the environment and its inhabitants. The resources required to extract raw materials from the earth far outweigh the cost of reclaiming them from used products. However, there are many aspects of current e-waste legislation that have hindered the progress of the recycling industry rather than encouraged it.

A prime example of this is the CRT regulations in CA. CRTs or cathode ray tubes (outdated bulky glass televisions and monitors) represent roughly 70% of the current e-waste stream by volume and they contain leaded glass, which is considered a hazardous material. The CA Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) has determined that the glass recovered from recycled CRTs can only be 1) used to make new CRTs, or 2) smelted to extract the lead. Neither of these recycling solutions is cost-effective, and the markets for smelting leaded glass and manufacturing new CRTs are shrinking rapidly. In response to the dwindling downstream for recycled CRT glass, the DTSC has temporarily allowed for the disposal of CRT glass in landfills, a decision that has outraged environmentalists, recycling companies, and other stakeholders alike. Some recycling companies have developed innovative methods for recycling CRT glass that would allow it to be treated and transformed into products like fiber glass or concrete. Unfortunately, the DTSC has denied these solutions as acceptable based on the flawed argument that the resulting products could potentially leach lead into the environment, despite scientific proof that they are completely safe. CA is the only state that has taken this strict approach to regulating CRT glass and it has resulted in massive stockpiles of CRT glass across the state.

Many stakeholders, especially the recyclers that have invested millions of dollars into developing these solutions, would like the DTSC reinstate the landfill ban on CRT glass, and assume a more receptive stance regarding new CRT recycling options.

A separate and arguably more pressing issue is the topic of e-waste exportation. It is illegal to export CRTs, but the exportation of most other types of e-waste is not regulated. Unfortunately, exportation can be very detrimental to the regions it ends up, especially in places that lack sufficient labor and environmental protection laws. When e-waste is recycled in developing nations, the workers and the environment can be severely contaminated. Environmental agencies, as well as recyclers in the US that have invested in developing sustainable, domestic recycling operations would like to see a nationwide ban on the exportation of all types of e-waste.

What do you see as a solution to the e-waste problem and is your company doing anything to contribute to the cause?

E-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world and will continue to be so as long as the proliferation of consumer electronics continues. There are two parts to the e-waste solution. The first part is to tackle the problem at the source by encouraging manufacturers to design electronics that have longer lifecycles and can be recycled with ease. The second part of the solution is to further cultivate the electronics recycling industry. This involves everything from public outreach and education about the importance of e-waste recycling to creating a legislative and regulatory landscape that incentivizes responsible recycling, rather than exportation or landfilling.

My company is dedicated to developing sustainable and responsible electronics recycling solutions which divert e-waste from being exported or dumped in landfills.

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4 Comments
  1. The general process, in the free market, is to find the Paretta Principle – the 20% of items worth 80% of the value. That’s the working equipment. In California, SB20 has interfered with that free market, so it makes sense that “see if it’s still working” doesn’t appear on the Public Heal Student’s list.

  2. Electronic Recycling should be observed for all cities because nowadays, almost all of our things are operated electronically. And most importantly, to save our mother earth and mankind.

    Techway Services – Computer recycling, data destruction

  3. I appreciated your professional way of writing this post thanks; you have made such a nice blog. I found in your website perfect for my needs it contains wonderful and helpful posts.

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