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In recent years, the evolution of e-waste recycling has grown exponentially in the U.S and is now catching up to Europe. Since the early 2000s multiple acts have been passed in order to control the toxins that are released from the hazardous chemicals that e-waste produces.

Before the 21st century, the U.S only had a handful of states that actually controlled, and properly disposed of electronic materials. Now, there than more than 25 states that have enforced laws to better control the recycling process.

The electronics recycling industry has been filled with opportunities and challenges in recent years. On the opportunities side, the amount of e-waste available for recycling continues to grow, consumer awareness of collection and recycling programs has continued to improve, concern about factors such as environmental responsibility and data security has grown, and recyclers keep increasing their technical capabilities and adoption of e-waste certifications.

“Also, many states continue to support e-waste take back laws,” said Jake Swenson, director of sustainability of Staples Business Advantage, the B2B arm of the more famous consumer brand, Staples. “As far as challenges, the industry is sensitive to fluctuations in commodity prices for metals and other raw materials. But savvy recyclers have moved in the direction of supplementing their recycling efforts with data destruction, which is so important today.”

Consumers are more and more aware of the hazardous materials in electronic waste, the illegal export problem, and data destruction/data security issues—so they are, in fact, demanding certified solutions.

“I think people and businesses mostly want to do the right thing but if they hear of a convenient and easy way to recycle e-waste and feel comfortable with that entity collecting the material is going to recycle responsibly, they are going to recycle with that entity,” Swenson said. “I think that is why you see a growing number of people continuing to recycle with retailers like Staples and Best Buy and entities like Goodwill.”

Overall, Swenson said there seems to be a demand for better regulation and enforcement against bad actors in the industry.

“All these factors are why we work with ERI, a large, financially healthy and technologically advanced national recycling partner who is committed to responsible recycling, including having e-stewards and R2 certifications at all of their recycling locations,” Swenson said.

With the growth of technology and consumers’ need to have the latest and greatest devices, e-waste has become a larger problem, said Digital Doc owner, Sean Chubner. Digital Doc is committed to keeping electronic waste out of landfills, so stores often host recycling events to collect tech devices that can either be reconditioned and donated or broken down and disposed of properly.

As Chubner explained, for companies and consumers to properly dispose of their e-waste, there are now drop-off centers located throughout the U.S. Tech companies, such as Digital Doc, have taken it upon themselves to host recycling events for their communities to properly dispose of broken or unwanted items.

“Business owners also help with controlling e-waste on a corporate level by incorporating the recycling process into their mission,” Chubner said.

When it comes to recycling electronics, a new emerging trend is companies that actually buy the tech items for resale and then wipe the customer’s information from the device. Other companies will actually go through and clear the information for the individual and then recondition it to donate back to local families in need.

“There are multiple challenges involved with the proper disposal of electronic items,” Chubner said. “On a consumer level, most people worry that their personal information on the device will be stolen. Although there are the some risks, the truth is that memory stored on a device will be wiped since the electronics are placed in a machine to dismantle the parts and destroy the hard drive.”

At Digital Doc, the number one challenge that they have is disposing of televisions. Companies charge for the disposal of TVs and monitors and most people do not want to pay to properly dispose of these items – they just toss it into a dump or leave it on the curb. Electronic discards with hazardous materials can pollute the air and water systems.

So how are recycling companies handling the glass recycling aspect of e-waste? As Chubner explained, items containing glass components are almost 100 percent recyclable. The device will be broken down and the glass removed to be reused in other products. A majority of the time, the glass is separated out by the color or type of glass, and then it’s melted down for reuse. For phones and computer screens, these items can be sent off to companies that refurbish them for resale.

“Not only is this a great practice to control the amount of e-waste, but also allows companies to offer repairs and services at a lower cost to consumers,” Chubner said.

And glass, in particular CRT glass, has been a challenge for many electronics recyclers because of the lead that was incorporated into CRTs. For years, glass was being sent to glass-to-glass facilities for the remanufacturing of CRTs.

According to the Electronics Recycling Landscape Report from the Closed Loop Foundation, multiple companies went out of business due to poorly managed stocks of CRT displays, and Videocon, the largest glass-to-glass smelter in the world stopped accepting new displays. As more companies continued to close in 2016, some state programs have discontinued collection, and Best Buy began charging consumers to take these devices. The small piece of good news is that Videocon has started accepting displays again from select vendors in the United States, with an expected demand for glass for another three years. “The past year has illustrated the volatility in CRT glass management markets, and underscores the challenges and uncertainties that organizations responsible for managing these materials face,” the report stated.

“Due to the glass to glass market shrinking, more markets have opened up for CRT glass,” Swenson said. “Our partner ERI created a process in 2010 for cleaning CRT glass on site. The panel and funnel are separated and then tumbled in a dry process to remove the phosphors on the glass. That glass is then sent to one of a few downstream markets to be used in new products. Those downstream markets are glass to glass, lead smelting and the ceramic tile industry.”

A convergence of factors has resulted in a challenging business environment for e-waste handlings, as well as subsequent glass recycling. The decline in commodity prices, especially for the precious metal components found within e-waste, has resulted in a cost-prohibitive environment for electronics recycling due to the time required in the transporting and disassembling of electronics devices.

Published in the November 2017 Edition of American Recycler News