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Smaller Devices Pose New E-Waste Challenges

As devices have become smaller, yet more complex, there are fewer valuable materials to extract and what is salvageable is harder to access.

Dealing with the still amassing tonnage of near-worthless cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and televisions is the biggest hurdle for e-cyclers, but an influx of disposed smartphones and tablets is presenting processors with a whole new set of issues.

As devices have become smaller, yet more complex, there are fewer valuable materials to extract and what is salvageable is harder to access. In 2017, there will be about 2.6 billion smartphone users, worldwide. By 2018, there will be about 1.43 billion tablet users.

This trend is driving changes in how materials are processed and who electronics recovery companies do business with. Those who capitalize moving forward will likely have to invest in new technology, tools and training.

Jason Linnell, executive director, National Center for Electronics Recycling, cites the evolution from desktops and laptops to tablets to illustrate some of what the industry is in store for.

“With [larger computers], you have plastic casing that snaps off or … screws that have to be removed to get to internal components. But you can easily extract the hard drive and other components,” he says.

The older computers are especially meaty, with accessible optical drives and circuit boards that can be pulled out along with RAM, which can be extracted for metal or resalable for memory.

“But with tablets there is no clear way in … sometimes you have to heat the screen around the edge to loosen the glue to separate it from other components,” he says. “Then, if you haven’t cracked the screen, you deal with smaller components in a tighter space.”

So, the question becomes, is it worth it from a business perspective to dismantle tiny gadgets and sell parts?

“It’s going to be difficult to justify the time invested for the money earned,” says Linnell. Recyclers will ideally have to refocus by recovering whole components for reuse rather than push them through shredders. And they will need to work at finding markets, he says.

In the worst case scenario, as happened with the recent debacle with Samsung’s Galaxy Note7 devices, Samsung and waste management companies were left with the challenge of safely disposing or recycling the massive amount of e-waste caused by the recall.

The IT asset disposition side of the industry is collecting devices from businesses and refurbishing them. This model has enabled more devices to be turned around faster with more resale value.

A small but growing number of tablets and smartphones are coming through the facilities owned and operated by Cascade Asset Management, based in Madison, Wis.

These devices make up about 2 percent (by count) of the assets the company resells and slightly more than 3 percent of resale revenues, says Cascade Asset Management CEO Neil Peters-Michaud.

The company refurbishes devices and resells them through its online store, on eBay, to local retailers and schools, among others. 

“Our existing clients are often just giving these phones back to carriers or stockpiling them,” Peters-Michaud says. “If we can get them once they are replaced, we know we can offer a significant additional value to our business and organizational customers. The total available market size is significant.”

For phones and tablets with market value (usually within two generations of the latest model), Cascade invests in product testing, specialty tools such as a flash memory data destruction tool, as well as a heat table to melt glue used to fasten screens.  

“[Our process] includes effective data sanitization to NIST Purge levels, possible repair and/or replacement of broken screens or failing batteries, and refurbishment,” he says.

Cascade will extract parts when they are worth more than the whole device.  They send demanufactured fractions to secondary recyclers and dismantlers. 

Meanwhile, what happens to the parts that are not worth extracting? And what happens to whole devices once they have further aged and have no value?

There are full-scale recyclers who not only refurbish but do manual disassembly and sorting, based on market worth, and who remove mercury and other materials that can’t be shredded.

But there needs to be more conversations with manufacturers on recycling design, says Linnell.

The conversations are beginning as are incentives. Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) is an electronics rating system that incentivizes manufacturers to consider sustainability, including in their designs.

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