Putting the Pedal to the Metal

FOR ALL THE DATA that goes into computers, many elements come out. When computers become obsolete, metals such as steel, aluminum, wire, cable and other resources can be extracted and recycled. But other more dangerous materials are also potential byproducts of electronics recovery, including toxics such as lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium. With electronics recycling receiving increasing scrutiny, the pressure is on manufacturers and electronics recyclers to prove that they can dismantle, recycle and dispose of electronics in a responsible way.

It is precisely because of this scrutiny that Noranda Recycling Inc. recently sought ISO 14001 environmental certification for its East Providence, R.I., recovery facility; it received certification in January. The San Jose, Calif.-based company is one of the largest electronics recyclers in the world, so maintaining an environmentally sound operation is critical. “The plan is to have all five of Noranda's recycling facilities certified this year,” says Steve Skurnac, Noranda Recycling's president. “It's important for us because our customers look at ISO certification as a validation of the systems we have in place. It's an international standard, so it sells well in Europe and Asia. Having the certification speeds up the process of customer evaluation.”

Noranda's Rhode Island facility, which employs 30 people and processes about 5,500 to 7,500 tons per year of e-scrap, is just one aspect of the multifaceted company. After a corporate reorganization in 2003, Noranda Recycling says it is ready to handle the onslaught of electronics entering the waste stream every day.

E-Waste in Overdrive

According to the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 2 million tons of electronic waste are buried in landfills each year. By 2005, the agency predicts that nearly 250 million computers will become obsolete and require disposal. Yet in 2001, only 11 percent of personal computers retired in the United States were recycled. Computers are just the most obvious e-waste culprit; hand-held devices, cell phones and other small electronics also are piling up. In the next year, the EPA estimates that 130 million mobile phones will be discarded.

More than half of all end-of-life electronics are shipped to Asia, where environmental and technological capabilities to recycle them are limited. In February 2003, the European Commission published the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, placing financial responsibility for recycling end-of-life electronics on manufacturers. Stateside corporate responsibility programs are on the rise as well, with several computer and electronics manufacturers establishing take-back and recycling programs.

To meet the growing demand for electronics recycling, Toronto-based Noranda Inc. — an international mining and metals company — announced last summer that it had reorganized its U.S.-based recycling operations into one company, called Noranda Recycling. The new company brings together three facilities in San Jose and Roseville, Calif., and Lavergne, Tenn., that had previously been operated by Micro Metallics Corp., as well as the East Providence facility, which had been operated by Noranda Sampling Inc. The company also opened an electronics recycling facility in Brampton, Ontario, last year.

Together, the five facilities make Noranda Recycling one of the largest processors of precious metal-bearing electronic materials in North America. The new company employs about 200 people and processes between 75,000 and 170,000 tons of recyclable raw materials each year.

“Last summer, we realized that we were getting some critical mass,” Skurnac says. “We were going to have five different sites operating, so we said, ‘Let's have a new company in the states, to give our Noranda name much more branding’ … Now it's much clearer and allows us to treat all five facilities as one operation. From a business perspective, we're all in this together.”

Although they are managed under one umbrella, Noranda Recycling's five facilities have different missions. The San Jose and East Providence facilities focus on copper and precious metal recovery from electronics, telecommunications, automotive, refining and metal fabrication industries. The Brampton, Roseville and Lavergne facilities focus on end-of-life electronics recycling through partnerships with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard (HP). Noranda's newest facility in Brampton recovers a typical variety of materials — hardware, CD-ROMs, tape drives, disk drives, CD writers, modems and circuit boards.

“The two plants on the extreme coasts, the San Jose facility and the old Noranda Sampling facility [in Rhode Island], are geared around metal-bearing electronics recovery,” Skurnac explains. “If you sent them material, there's a 99 percent chance we're going to pay you for the metal contained in that material. If you send material to Roseville or Nashville or Brampton, you will be paying us to take the material.”

Playing it Safe

Noranda's operation is centered on its electronics “take-back” partnerships with HP and other manufacturers, which began at the Roseville facility in the mid-1990s. In July 2002, HP built on this relationship by launching a take-back service for Canadians to recycle unwanted computers and equipment from any manufacturer. The service includes pickup, transportation, evaluation for reuse or donation, and recycling for products ranging from printers to scanners. Noranda then provides HP and other OEMs with disassembly, product testing and metal recovery services at its Tennessee facility.

Other manufacturers may be as forward-thinking as HP, but not as forthcoming. “We do provide a similar service to other OEMs,” Skurnac says. “It's similar in that the manufacturers manage the internal program, then we take over when it comes time to handling the material. So it's a very close relationship we have to those groups. They want to do the right thing, but not bring a lot of scrutiny to themselves.”

In 2003, the San Jose-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an electronics watchdog organization, and the Computer TakeBack Campaign, a similarly minded coalition, released a report that examined HP's partnership with Noranda and the Roseville facility, comparing it with a similar deal between Austin, Texas-based Dell Inc., and Washington, D.C.-based UNICOR. The report examined the partnerships based on three criteria: Transparency and accountability to the public; general compliance with occupational health and safety standards; and use of best recycling practices and their potential for wide adoption by the private sector.

The report praised the Noranda facility for allowing the coalition's industrial hygienist to inspect the facility freely and speak informally with employees. Noranda also had developed efficient warehousing systems that electronically tracked materials throughout the recycling process. Disassembly workstations were well-lit, ergonomically designed and computerized, with each workbench equipped with a hand-held device to scan and retrieve information about the equipment to be salvaged, the report stated.

Safety also was paramount in the Roseville facility, according to the report. Chairs and tabletops could be adjusted for worker comfort, and motorized pallet jackets and forklifts were used to avoid worker injury. Workers were encouraged to provide feedback on product design and to suggest alternative tools to improve safety and efficiency. Additionally, brooms were removed from the facility and replaced with vacuum cleaners to control dust, which can contain lead, flame retardants and other toxins from computer dismantling and shredding operations.

The report concluded that the Noranda facility “demonstrated characteristics that other electronic waste managers and policy decision makers might emulate as they begin to develop recycling programs.” These characteristics include:

  • Eliminating tools, such as hammers, that cause injury and health hazards;

  • Developing efficient warehousing systems that electronically track materials through the recycling process;

  • Installing mechanized systems, such as crushers, that reduce worker exposure to toxics;

  • Developing work stations designed to reduce ergonomic hazards;

  • Developing a database that allows workers to access information on hazardous materials; and

  • Providing non-management representation on the company's health and safety committee.

“It was a good experience to visit a work site where there appears to be a significant investment in occupational and environmental health and safety,” the lead investigator wrote.

Minding the Market

In the United States, electronics “recyclers” have been widely criticized for sending obsolete high-tech trash to Asia, where unsafe dismantling systems pose threats to Asian workers and the environment. “There are two key things that pop up in this business,” Skurnac says. “One relates to recycling operators and this whole notion of environmentally sound management of the equipment. We make the point that, if you call yourself an electronics recycler, make sure that you are not just brokering material to destinations unknown. And if you're a company who's disposing of the material, make sure you know where it's going. Any reputable recycling company can give you that information.”

In the meantime, Noranda and other recyclers are facing new electronics legislation. Dozens of states have passed or are considering bills to legislate the disposal and recycling of electronic waste. Some states have instituted landfill bans on certain electronics or have created fees to support funds for electronics recycling. Congress is considering national electronics legislation and in March, the EPA announced a pilot project to measure the economic impacts of environmentally sound electronics management. “If you're going to be in electronics recycling,” Skurnac says, “you better be willing to be involved in public policy.”

In the midst of this highly charged and increasingly regulated sector, North American recyclers are still dealing with the widespread export of scrap to China. “The commodity metal markets have improved, but that has less of an impact on our business than people think,” Skurnac says. “We're buying raw material. So if the price of gold goes up, the customer expects to be paid more. What it might do is drive material to us that wasn't worth recycling before. You might make the argument that there's more material in the marketplace. But with China buying every bit of scrap material, it hasn't made it easier for Noranda or anyone to source raw material.”

In fact, Noranda was able to open its Brampton facility in part because another electronics recycler could not compete in a difficult marketplace. “We basically stepped in and bought all of their equipment, and we went out and acquired a brand new building,” Skurnac says. Today, he reports that volumes in Canada are substantially higher than the company originally had anticipated.

Skurnac is confident that the electronics recycling business will grow. New legislation in Europe and elsewhere is likely to send more materials to Noranda's facilities, which could easily accept increased feedstock, he says. “Hopefully, a year from now we'll have more plants or the ones we have will be so busy we won't know what to do with ourselves. We think there are market opportunities for growth, and we plan to be a part of that.”

Kim A. O'Connell is a contributing editor based in Arlington, Va.

WasteExpo Watch

Don't miss the educational session “E-Waste: A New Market … A New Profit Opportunity” at WasteExpo 2004 in Dallas.

Date: Monday, May 17
Time: 2:15 p.m. -3:30 p.m.

Noranda Recycling's Steve Skurnac will be joined by David Thompson of Panasonic, David White of Nokia, and Peggy Macenas of the National Solid Wastes Management Association to discuss new e-waste revenue opportunities. For more information, visit www.wasteexpo.com.