Electronics Landfill Ban Growing in the US – North Carolina Promotes Electronics Recycling

When most people think of recycling they imagine sorting through their trash to set aside plastic bottles, glass containers, and paper products donned with the classic triangular shaped recycle logo. While these materials have long been the most common to be recycled, there is growing awareness of the need to consider electronics recycling as a crucial part of green living. In fact, more and more states have banned disposal of electronics in landfills and are promoting electronics recycling programs.

Many household electronics can be recycled including; cell phones, TV’s, computer monitors, computer hard drives, keyboards, telecommunications waste, servers, circuit boards, power supplies, cd players, digital cameras, and a variety of other items. This long list of e-waste products presents a new opportunity to drastically reduce the amount of waste modern society produces through the course of everyday living. While e-waste recycling presents a great opportunity, it also presents a huge potential hazard if we ignore it. For example, CRT display televisions (classic TV’s) contain on average four to eight pounds of lead. When dumped in landfills the lead from these units can be absorbed into the ground causing soil and ground water to become toxic. This process causes irreparable damage to the environment as well as our own critical life resources.

On July 1st 2011 North Carolina became the 18th state in the union to place some kind of ban on electronics disposal in landfills. North Carolina residents must now recycle their old TV’s and Computers. This ban covers all computer components including; monitors, CPU’s, laptops, printers, fax machines, scanners, mice, and keyboards. The ban also covers all TV’s including; flat panel TV’s, tube TV’s, and projection TV’s.

While the ban is aimed at preventing citizens from disposing of their e-waste in the garbage, the state is not looking to target individuals for non-compliance. The new law will be enforced at the landfills, and those businesses will be responsible for rejecting waste containing the prohibited items. The enforcement of this new law presents additional challenges for officials as the motivation for landfills to comply can only be judged on a case-by-case basis. Outside of landfill management taking the initiative to do the right thing; there is little keeping them from conducting business as usual.

Besides the benefits this new law presents to the residents of North Carolina and the rest of the United States, this law represents a growing trend of public awareness and action being taken by leaders in this country to bring the American people into a new age of environmentally responsible living. And while we are taking huge leaps towards reversing the damage we have done over the past 50 years, other countries like China and India are undergoing technological revolutions and will soon be presented with the same issues we are seeking solutions for in this country now.

It’s our responsibility as technology leaders to show other nations there is a productive way to live responsibly, and that this way of living can go hand in hand with economic health and prosperity. As our recycling industry grows and contributes to the economic growth of this country, people’s eyes are opening to new possibilities. People are steadily being given the chance to live responsibly while enjoying the many benefits of a technologically advanced lifestyle.

WEEE Recycling Advice

Many businesses in the UK and worldwide use and need to dispose of large amounts electrical goods often known as WEEE.This article will explore WEEE recycling and the best practices for disposal.

What is Electronic Waste?

To begin with, it is necessary to look at what constitutes WEEE material. Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is waste consisting of unwanted or broken electrical or electronic devices.

The safe disposal of these goods has become a concern because of the varying amounts of components used in the manufacturing and use of electrical goods, their disposal and waste has raised concerns as many of the components which make up this type of equipment are considered hazardous and are therefore harmful to our environment.

It was due to these concerns that most European countries therefore banned electronic waste from landfills in the 1990s. It wasn’t until 2002 that the European Union implemented the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE), which holds manufacturers responsible for electronic waste disposal at the end of life.

What is the WEEE Directive?

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive came into action to encourage everyone to recycle and reuse WEEE and to reduce the amount of WEEE items being produced, thereby massively reducing the amount of electrical goods headed for landfill, where dangerous chemicals or substances could be released into the nearby environment and water-table.

The WEEE Directive also encourages businesses that manufacture, supply, use, recycle and recover electrical and electronic equipment to improve the environmental performance of the business. The WEEE directive aims to guarantee that businesses manufacturing or using electrical items dispose of these goods in the correct manner.

In the UK the directive has set out 10 categories of WEEE items:

  • Large household appliances
  • Small household appliances
  • IT and telecommunications equipment
  • Consumer equipment
  • Lighting equipment
  • Electrical and electronic tools
  • Toys, leisure and sports equipment
  • Medical devices
  • Monitoring and control instruments
  • Automatic dispensers

All companies and organisations that import, rebrand or manufacture new electrical or electronic equipment must comply with the UK’s WEEE regulations. The same can be said for those companies who disposes of electrical or electronic equipment, or indeed if they sell WEEE items.

Before disposing of any items which fall under the WEEE directive it is highly advisable to identify a responsible and fully accredited WEEE Disposal recycling company to ensure that this is being done in the correct way.

What’s In The Future For Electronics Recycling?

Electronics recycling in the U.S. is growing as the industry consolidates and matures. The future of electronics recycling – at least in the U.S., and perhaps globally – will be driven by electronics technology, precious metals, and industry structure, in particular. Although there are other things that can influence the industry – such as consumer electronics collections, legislation and regulations and export issues – I believe that these 3 factors will have a more profound impact on the future of electronics recycling.

The most recent data on the industry – from a survey conducted by the International Data Corporation (IDC) and sponsored by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) – found that the industry (in 2010) handled approximately 3.5 million tons of electronics with revenues of $5 billion and directly employed 30,000 people – and that it has been growing at about 20% annually for the past decade. But will this growth continue?

Electronics Technology
Personal computer equipment has dominated volumes handled by the electronics recycling industry. The IDC study reported that over 60% by weight of industry input volumes was “computer equipment” (including PCs and monitors). But recent reports by IDC and Gartner show that shipments of desktop and laptop computers have declined by more than 10% and that the shipments of smartphones and tablets now each exceed that of PCs. About 1 billion smart phones will be shipped in 2013 – and for the first time exceed the volumes of conventional cell phones. And shipments of ultra-light laptops and laptop-tablet hybrids are increasing rapidly. So, we are entering the “Post-PC Era”.

In addition, CRT TVs and monitors have been a significant portion of the input volumes (by weight) in the recycling stream – up to 75% of the “consumer electronics” stream. And the demise of the CRT means that fewer CRT TVs and monitors will be entering the recycling stream – replaced by smaller/lighter flat screens.

So, what do these technology trends mean to the electronics recycling industry? Do these advances in technology, which lead to size reduction, result in a “smaller materials footprint” and less total volume (by weight)? Since mobile devices (e.g., smart phones, tablets) already represent larger volumes than PCs – and probably turn over faster – they will probably dominate the future volumes entering the recycling stream. And they are not only much smaller, but typically cost less than PCs. And, traditional laptops are being replaced by ultra-books as well as tablets – which means that the laptop equivalent is a lot smaller and weighs less.

So, even with continually increasing quantities of electronics, the weight volume entering the recycling stream may begin decreasing. Typical desktop computer processors weigh 15-20 lbs. Traditional laptop computers weigh 5-7 lbs. But the new “ultra-books” weigh 3-4 lbs. So, if “computers” (including monitors) have comprised about 60% of the total industry input volume by weight and TVs have comprised a large portion of the volume of “consumer electronics” (about 15% of the industry input volume) – then up to 75% of the input volume may be subject to the weight reduction of new technologies – perhaps as much as a 50% reduction. And, similar technology change and size reduction is occurring in other markets – e.g., telecommunications, industrial, medical, etc.

However, the inherent value of these devices may be higher than PCs and CRTs (for resale as well as scrap – per unit weight). So, industry weight volumes may decrease, but revenues could continue to increase (with resale, materials recovery value and services). And, since mobile devices are expected to turn over more rapidly than PCs (which have typically turned over in 3-5 years), these changes in the electronics recycling stream may happen within 5 years or less.

Another factor for the industry to consider, as recently reported by E-Scrap News – “The overall portability trend in computing devices, including traditional form-factors, is characterized by integrated batteries, components and non-repairable parts. With repair and refurbishment increasingly difficult for these types of devices, e-scrap processors will face significant challenges in determining the best way to manage these devices responsibly, as they gradually compose an increasing share of the end-of-life management stream.” So, does that mean that the resale potential for these smaller devices may be less?

The electronics recycling industry has traditionally focused on PCs and consumer electronics, but what about infrastructure equipment? – such as servers/data centers/cloud computing, telecom systems, cable network systems, satellite/navigation systems, defense/military systems. These sectors generally use larger, higher value equipment and have significant (and growing?) volumes. They are not generally visible or thought of when considering the electronics recycling industry, but may be an increasingly important and larger share of the volumes that it handles. And some, if not much, of this infrastructure is due to change in technology – which will result in a large volume turnover of equipment. GreenBiz.com reports that “… as the industry overhauls and replaces… servers, storage and networking gear to accommodate massive consolidation and virtualization projects and prepare for the age of cloud computing… the build-out of cloud computing, the inventory of physical IT assets will shift from the consumer to the data center… While the number of consumer devices is increasing, they are also getting smaller in size. Meanwhile, data centers are being upgraded and expanded, potentially creating a large amount of future e-waste.”

But, outside the U.S. – and in developing countries in particular – the input volume weight to the electronics recycling stream will increase significantly – as the usage of electronic devices spreads to a broader market and an infrastructure for recycling is developed. In addition, developing countries will continue to be attractive markets for the resale of used electronics.

Precious Metals
In the IDC study, over 75% by weight of industry output volumes was found to be “commodity grade scrap”. And more than half of that was “metals”. Precious metals represent a small portion of the volume – the average concentration of precious metals in electronics scrap is measured in grams per ton. But their recovery value is a significant portion of the total value of commodity grade scrap from electronics.

Precious metals prices have increased significantly in recent years. The market prices for gold, silver, palladium and platinum have each more than doubled over the past five years. However, gold and silver have historically been very volatile since their prices are driven primarily by investors. Their prices seem to have peaked – and are now significantly below their high points last year. Whereas, platinum and palladium prices have traditionally been driven by demand (e.g., manufacturing – like electronics and automotive applications) and generally more stable.

Telecommunications equipment and cell phones generally have the highest precious metals content – up to 10 times the average of scrap electronics based on per unit weight. As technology advances, the precious metals content of electronics equipment generally decreases – due to cost reduction learning. However, the smaller, newer devices (e.g., smart phones, tablets) have higher precious metals content per unit weight than conventional electronics equipment – such as PCs. So, if the weight volume of electronics equipment handled by the electronics industry decreases, and the market prices for precious metals decreases – or at least does not increase – will the recovery value of precious metals from electronics scrap decrease? Probably the recovery value of precious metals from electronics scrap per unit weight will increase since more electronics products are getting smaller/lighter, but have a higher concentration of precious metals (e.g., cell phones) than traditional e-scrap in total. So, this aspect of the industry may actually become more cost efficient. But the total industry revenue from commodity scrap – and especially precious metals – may not continue to increase.

Industry Structure
The electronics recycling industry in the U.S. can be thought of as comprising 4 tiers of companies. From the very largest – that process well in excess of 20 up to more than 200 million lbs. per year – to medium, small and the very smallest companies – that process less than 1 million lbs. per year. The top 2 tiers (which represent about 35% of the companies) process approximately 75% of the industry volume. The number of companies in “Tier 1” has already decreased due to consolidation – and continued industry consolidation will probably drive it more towards the familiar 80/20 model. Although there are over 1000 companies operating in the electronics recycling industry in the U.S., I estimate that the “Top 50” companies process almost half of the total industry volume.

What will happen to the smaller companies? The mid-size companies will either merge, acquire, get acquired or partner to compete with the larger companies. The small and smallest companies will either find a niche or disappear. So, the total number of companies in the electronics recycling industry will probably decrease. And more of the volumes will be handled by the largest companies. As with any maturing industry, the most cost efficient and profitable companies will survive and grow.

What are the implications of these trends?
• The total weight of input volumes will probably not continue to grow (as it has at 20% annually) – and may actually decrease in the U.S.
• The electronics recycling industry will continue to consolidate – and the largest companies will handle most of the industry volumes.
• The inherent value for resale and materials recovery will probably increase per unit volume.
• Reuse and services may become a more significant part of the total industry revenue than recycling and materials recovery.

In an environment of consolidation and potentially decreasing volumes, developing additional capacity or starting a new facility for electronics recycling in the U.S. could be very risky. Acquiring the most cost efficient existing capacity available would be more prudent.

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