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Chief Development Officer of Sims Metal Management Talks E-waste Technology

Steve Skurnac sat down with Waste360 to discuss the need for innovative recycling technologies, strategies for OEMs and producers and the opportunities and risks tied to increasing volumes of e-waste.

Steve Skurnac, chief development officer for Sims Metal Management, served as a representative at the 17th International Electronics Recycling Congress IERC 2018, held January 17-19 in Salzburg, Austria. The event brought more than 500 recycling professionals together to discuss new technologies, regulations, manufacturing processes and raw materials values.

Skurnac participated in a roundtable discussion regarding who will benefit from increasing e-waste volumes. He recently sat down with Waste360 to discuss the roundtable event and the need for innovative recycling technologies, strategies for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and producers and the opportunities and risks tied to increasing volumes of electronic waste.

Waste360: What topics were discussed during the International Electronics Recycling Congress roundtable?

Steve Skurnac: The IERC is an organizing group that puts together these conferences around the world. The one in Salzburg is definitely their key electronics recycling conference each year and it draws a big crowd. They get people from all over the world. It is mostly folks directly in the recycling business—electronics recyclers or original equipment manufacturers. They have a number of sessions during the two days talking about regulatory issues, new equipment and technology.

The session that I attended was one of these catch-all, end of the conference sessions about what are the trends, what’s happening in the industry, who’s going to benefit and what we need to look for going forward. They get representatives on the panel with various experiences within the industry. We summarize what we heard from the past two days and what we need to be aware of.

The general theme was this notion that there appears to be an ever-increasing volume of e-scrap coming into the marketplace. Part of it from an obsolescence point of view, and part of it because there is a ridiculous amount of material being put into the marketplace each year. This is all manner of electronics and gadgets that are not just limited to computers and laptops anymore. Every television you have is a “smart” TV … appliances, refrigerators, toasters—all these things have some manner of electronic circuitry embedded in them. The idea of waste electronics being limited to an IT environment is simply not the case anymore. The panel was to talk about what to do with all of this volume and what it means for the industry.

Waste360: Who will benefit from increasing e-waste volumes?

Steve Skurnac: We had a disagreement on this. Some of the participants were quite confident that manufacturers would benefit from this increasing volume in the sense that more volume meant that this business would become more economically feasible and attractive for the recycling industry. Therefore, the cost to recycle equipment would be reduced, and in the European context, manufacturers pay for the cost of recycling because they have mandatory recycling schemes and it’s a producer pays kind of setup. One of the panelists was quite clear that manufacturers will benefit because more volume comes with reduced costs; therefore, it will not be as expensive for the manufacturers to recycle the equipment.

I was of the opinion that it wasn’t really manufacturers that would benefit but that there was the potential for recycling companies to benefit if they made the correct investment in technology and if governments did a better job of enforcement.

A two-year study was done by the United Nations University focusing specifically on e-waste imports into Nigeria, and what they found was significant volumes of e-waste going into Nigeria, 70 percent of which is coming from the European Union (EU). By law, it is illegal for that material to be exported. The notion is that there are strict regulations in the EU, and recycling companies that operate in the EU are bound to some pretty strict standards. But it’s also clear that there isn’t a good enforcement mechanism.

It’s far less expensive to export material outside of the EU than it is to process it and recycle it properly inside the EU. If someone is trying to eliminate cost from a program, it’s much simpler to sell it to someone who will export the product than it is to pay for it to be properly recycled.

The real issue is where will those volumes actually originate and will there be regulator support to ensure those products are being recycled in-house or region rather than allowing them to be exported? There was no consensus on who was going to benefit from this ever-increasing pile of e-waste coming into the market.

Waste360: What new technologies are on the horizon that will benefit the waste and recycling industry?

Steve Skurnac: There is a lot of new stuff. In a broad scope, the technology that’s coming is all around automated sensing technology so that when you take material through a shredder, you come out with tiny bits and pieces of shredded waste electronics. Some of it is very easy to extract by a simple magnet.  You can take all of the steel fractions out, and you have a quite clean steel fraction.

It’s a little more difficult to get other metals in a separated form, so there’s technology that identifies different kinds of metals. Some of it is actually x-ray based technology. Some of it is color based or density based so you have all of these automatic sensors that can do an incredible job of detecting material on a moving belt.

When it gets to the end of the conveyor belt, you have little air jets that will selectively blow material off the belt and put it into a separate bin to collect. So, you might set your sensor for red metals, copper-based materials. You’ll get a stream of mixed materials coming off this conveyor belt that is plastic and metal, but then a clean stream of copper. You continue to run it through these different sensing technologies to do separation. When you rid of all of the metals, you have a mixed plastics stream. They’ve done the same thing with different polymers and resins.

They’ll use infrared technology, x-ray technology and color technology to run your mixed plastics stream across a fat-moving conveyor belt and selectively pull out different resins. That allows you to send it directly to a company that will make new resins or a smelting company that will melt it and reuse it.

The technology benefitting recycling right now is the automated sensing technology that allows them to make much cleaner streams of material coming out of their operations.

Waste360: What is driving the need for innovative new technologies in the industry?

Steve Skurnac: Cost. When you operate in any developed country, your labor costs are extremely high relative to the value of the material coming in the door. It’s necessary for companies to make an investment in automatic shredding and separation lines, employees who are being paid living wages and benefits and those appropriate social conditions. You have a very high labor cost associated with that recycling activity, and the value of the material you are getting is just not that great. What you have to do is invest in equipment that will generate as much profitability by doing a better job of separating the material.

If I take all of the metal out of my equipment, I’m left with a mixed plastics stream, and I cannot sell that to anyone. It’s just landfill or burning it for energy. If you don’t do a good job of separating plastics from electronics, you cannot sell a mixed stream of non-separated plastics to anyone. There simply isn’t a market for it because nobody is interested in buying your mixed bag of trash.

The technology drive is all about extracting enough revenue from the material that you can justify the cost of doing the recycling in the first place.

Waste360: What are the opportunities tied to the increasing volumes of e-waste?

Steve Skurnac: One is that there is a push for more circular economy initiatives, meaning let’s not waste it. Let’s make sure we recover materials and use them again. There’s an interest in more recycling, which is always a good thing. Original equipment manufacturers have taken this to heart, too. In varying degrees, some companies are very keen to get their product back or get their raw materials back and put them into secondary material uses. In some cases, even reuse them again.

Hewitt Packard is a good example. They are quite keen to get some of their printers back to reuse the plastic again in new printer manufacturing. When you look at opportunities, it’s really partnerships with the manufacturers because recyclers are the bridge between consumers and end-of-life material, being in a position to return materials back into that supply chain. You can start to close the loop from a circular economy point of view.

The other one is less specific for companies based in the EU or U.S., but China is now developing a lot of e-waste in their own right, just domestic e-waste. The economy is developing, and the population is huge. They’ve had computers for quite some time. They’re big mobile phone users, and all that material is creating waste in China. There will be opportunities for companies that are willing to invest and try their hand in China. It may all be domestic companies that are engaged in China, but you never know. There may be opportunities for foreign companies to come in and use their expertise as well.

Waste360: What are the challenges or risks?

Steve Skurnac: One issue is miniaturization or smaller gadgets. In the old days, we all lived on old desktop computers. Not very efficient, but fantastic feed materials for recyclers. We’d get truckloads of old desktop computers, which were mostly metal. Even some of the early printers contained a lot of metals that were easy to recover.

Now, everything is all plastic based, or you’re getting much smaller mobile phones and tablets. You have to handle a lot of them to recover. Secondly, they all have lithium batteries, so you have to find a mechanism for removing them. These lithium ion batteries are amazing technology but difficult for recyclers to handle because they’re very volatile. You have smaller pieces of equipment with more hazards in them. The opportunity is that there are a lot more of them coming out of the waste stream.

Waste360: What strategies should original equipment managers and producers follow to reduce e-waste?

Steve Skurnac: They have to do a better job of designing for recycling. Some companies have done a great job and others not so much. There are so many different materials and resins and stuff in equipment we have these days. The more complicated it is to separate those materials, the tougher it is for recyclers to have an economic model that works. You have to just keep trying to do extra separation to get cleaner streams that, in some cases, the recycling is difficult.

Some companies get criticized because they make a product that’s all glued together, which makes it hard to separate. If you make it difficult for a recycler to separate the materials, you end up with poorer recovery numbers.

Original equipment manufacturers should look at designs for recycling that makes it easier to do down the road. That’s a tough one because everything that’s coming into a recycling company today is six months to 10 years old, so even if manufacturers do make changes, it takes a while for it to show up in the recycling stream. We’re sort of stuck with the legacy equipment right now. It would be nice if these things were easier to separate because then the cost of recycling would go down.

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