Break It Down

AS E-WASTE IS BANNED from more and more landfills nationwide, the demand for recyclers of the material has increased dramatically. This is especially true in California, the only state that subsidizes the collection of e-waste through an electronic waste recycling fee charged to consumers — a $6 to $10 surcharge on the purchase of new devices, such as computer monitors and televisions, mandated by California Senate Bill 20/50 (SB20/50).

With funds generated by the surcharge, the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) pays recyclers a per pound rate for cathode ray tubes (CRT) collected at various events around the state. There, residents can drop off their old computer monitors and other SB20/50 covered materials like televisions and microwave ovens that contain CRTs. The tubes contain lead — some as much as seven pounds — and some argue that they pose a hazard for landfills. Recyclers usually also collect cell phones, VCRs, tape recorders and other e-waste, which are separated from the CRT waste on site.

Research recently conducted for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that three-quarters of all computers sold in the United States remain stockpiled in garages, attics and other home storage areas. Of these, only 13 percent are reused or recycled. Recent studies estimate that the number of these unused obsolete computers nationwide is as high as 680 million units, equivalent to 34 billion pounds of CRT material.

California has 270 e-waste collectors and 38 collector/recyclers. Fresno-based Electronic Recyclers is the largest of the collector/recyclers. According to Chairman and CEO John Shegerian, the company collects e-waste at 50 events each month around the state. The amount of e-waste collected “varies wildly based on the marketing of the event,” says Shegerian. “Sometimes you get three truckfulls. Sometimes you end up with half a truck. The more you educate the communities that it's banned from the landfills, the success of the events goes up and up.”

The company also operates an e-waste collection facility in Gardner, Mass. serving the New England states. Because Massachusetts does not have a law like SB 20/50, at this facility the company pays for e-waste at the rate of 10 to 20 cents a pound. The site collects about two million pounds of e-waste a month.

At a recent event held one Saturday afternoon earlier this year at the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) student parking lot, the company collected 38,413 pounds of e-waste (16,445 pounds of it CRTs). Electronic Recyclers received 48 cents per pound from the CIWMB for the CRT waste. Of this amount, by law, 20 cents per pound was passed along to the “host,” in this case CCSF, which used the money to help fund student organizations.

After collecting the e-waste, Electronic Recyclers trucks the material to its recycling center in Fresno. The site has 70,000 square feet of covered warehouse space and includes eight truck doors and four railcar doors.

Since opening in 2005, the company recycles an average of 600 computer monitors a day. Dismantlers keep up with the pace by working fast. They can rip the plastic casing off a computer in a minute and a half.

Valuable metals, such as the gold found at the center of most computer chips and copper, are separated out and melted down. The company estimates it processes 40 pounds of computer chips a day.

Once the shell of a computer is stripped away and separated into white and black plastic, the remaining CRT is sent to a $500,000 piece of equipment that can crush a computer screen in five seconds. After pulverizing, a magnet attached to the conveyor belt separates out the metal from the glass. The company sends 750,000 pounds of CRT material through the crusher each week. It is hermetically sealed and OSHA approved.

In keeping with the strict California laws regarding the recycling of e-waste, all materials entering the plant are weighed. After the process is finished, the resulting recycled material is also weighed to ensure that none of it was diverted for recycling in foreign countries such as China where unsafe, polluting electronic recycling practices abound.

To allay privacy concerns, Electronic Recyclers also puts the machines' hard drives through a shredder. The company claims that it destroys 300 hard drives a day in this manner.

For its business customers, Electronic Recyclers will video record the entire recycling process so that the client can be assured that all sensitive information is destroyed. Clients are given a code to log onto the Electronic Recycler's Web site to access the video online.

Other e-waste, from cell phones to printers to your old speakers from the dorm, is recycled in the same manner, stripping down the components to their essential elements. “Everything's being re-used. Everything we take is separated out into crushed glass, dark and light plastics, and metals — gold, copper, aluminum and steel,” says Shegerian. “We sell everything. The essence of recycling is reuse. Everything that comes in goes out again.”

Paul Kilduff is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.