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Searching for solutions: designers, manufacturers and recyclers of electronic equipment gathered in San Francisco to examine the many facets of electronic scrap. (Electronics Summit Wrap Up).

The most established recycling markets exist without subsidies, most observers agree. The question facing those involved in the emerging electronic scrap recycling industry is to what extent can and should governments be involved in regulating or supporting this recycling sector.

Equipment designers and manufacturers as well as recyclers, government officials and environmental activists gathered in San Francisco in May for the 2002 International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment to discuss this and other issues. The event was organized by the International Association of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Piscataway, N.J., and co-sponsored by the International Association of Electronics Recyclers (IAER), Albany, N.Y.

While "design-for-environment" and energy-efficiency presentations were on the agenda, the end-of-life disposition of obsolete electronics captured much of the attention of those attending the annual event, which include(I an Electronics Recycling Summit on its final two days.

How to dispose of or recycle obsolete electronic equipment without causing environmental harm has been the topic of considerable research and debate, if the event's programming is any indication.


The tone of end-of-life computer recycling was set early at the conference with a presentation of footage shot by the Basel Action Network of working and living conditions in the city of Guiyu, China. Guiyu has become a hub for illegal and unsafe computer recycling operations in China.

During an undercover visit to Guiyu in December of 2001, representatives of the Basel Action Network, Seattle, saw and taped villagers manually cracking leaded-glass computer monitors to retrieve the copper yokes within. The men, women and children of Guiyu also conduct open burning of PVC-coated wire and cable: they "grill" circuit boards to melt the lead solder to remove chips; and they work with a 75 percent hydrochloric acid solution to separate precious metals from circuit boards.

The amounts of scrap computers, monitors and printers is staggering, overflowing in large piles in the front and back yards of villagers who work from their homes or other small locations.

The acid stripping operations, along with the open dumping of waste and ash residue into ditches and riverbeds, has rendered the well water and ground water of Guiyu undrinkable. For the past five years, water has been trucked in from distant villages.

One villager told the taping crew that in a span of five years, Guiyu had gone from a bucolic rice-growing village to "a bustling, sprawling junkyard." He noted that while water may be trucked in, some villagers still wash their vegetables in the contaminated water, and by breathing in the fumes generated by open burning, "many villagers have become weak."

The taping crew examined pieces of computer equipment hauled into the village and spotted identification labels from such entities as the City of Los Angeles, the State of California and the L.A. Unified School District. Such equipment and its components lay in heaps along the roadsides and in the ditches and creek beds of Guiyu.

The tape or the accompanying print report of conditions in Guiyu, called "Exporting Harm," can be obtained from the Basel Action Network at its Web site,

Basel Action Network's Jim Puckett remarked, "In a bid to avoid landfills, a worse alternative may have been found. Nobody bothered to look at what goes on in China."

Lauren Roman of United Recycling Industries, West Chicago, Ill., noted that brokers in the U.S. shipping to China have been able to undercut domestic recyclers, resulting "in the export of between 50 percent and 80 percent of all electronic waste sent for recycling from U.S. sources."

According to both Puckett and Roman, many equipment manufacturers and generators of scrap computer equipment have already pledged to more carefully audit their recycling contractors and brokers to ensure they are not part of the Guiyu problem.

The reaction of the Chinese government to the findings in Guiyu has been swift: It immediately banned the import of electronic scrap into China. "On paper, China has banned the import of material such as cathode ray tubes, computers and circuit boards," said Puckett. "But there is a huge amount of corruption at the customs level," he added, noting that containers of material helped along with bribes may still be making their way to Guiyu.

A session later in the week on the export situation included a presentation by Jade Lee of System Service International, Lombard, Ill. According to Lee, the company offers an electronics recycling service that includes shipping some goods to China, but only to an enclosed facility with health and safety standards comparable to the ones found at the Chinese plants of U.S.-based equipment manufacturers.

When the Basel Action Network report was issued, Lee said she told her corporate clients, "This report underscores the importance of working with reputable firms with very good plants in China." The scenes of illegal dumping in Guiyu paint a picture of the "backyard, illegal operations" that SSI competes with, she remarked.


Domestic shredding and mechanical sorting of material is beginning to provide one option for generators of electronic scrap. The practice may also greatly alter "design for recycling" considerations in the electronics equipment industry.

Presenters at the symposium stopped short of saying designing for recycling would become passe. But mechanical processing may already be rendering as unnecessary many of the initial easy disassembly considerations that seemed important just a few years ago.

For much of the previous decades, the message from recyclers to computer manufacturers was fairly unanimous. Disassemblers want them to design machines to be easy to take apart, while materials recyclers wanted them to use fewer materials, including a limited number and color of plastic resins.

The increasing use of automation may be changing the urgency of that message, according to Rudolf Auer and two colleagues from Apple Computer Inc., Cupertino, Calif., and Cal-Berkeley graduate student Eric Masanet.

The four conducted a series of interviews with recyclers to prioritize design for recycling guidelines for Apple. "A frequent prediction made during the interview process was that automated disassembly systems were likely to replace manual disassembly systems in the future," the study noted.

This major shift is making such one-time priorities as the use of snap-fit assemblies and the use of ISO labels move toward the background. "ISO labels have no effect on the recyclability of plastic parts" in automated shredding and sorting operations, the study's authors concluded.

Even the coordinated use of one plastic resin or one color may be fading as a priority. "We got feedback from recyclers not to worry about color," Eric Masanet told symposium attendees.

The lessening of this priority is due less to recycling methods and more to a grudging acknowledgement that the market does not want uniform-appearing computers. "There is too much of a variety available to be managed from a recycling viewpoint," said Masanet.

Symposium attendees also heard a success story from Sony Electronics Inc., San Diego. Doug Smith, with the company's corporate environmental affairs department, described a process designed by Sony engineers who are using reclaimed plant trays and other scrap to create secondary resin pellets used to make interior speaker boxes for Sony televisions. The process saves those involved from $115 to $515 per ton of material used, depending on the price of the secondary resin and the cost of tipping fees avoided.

Smith believes that for product take-back systems to work, more such uses must be discovered. "What's the point of taking any of this back if we're not going to use it?" he asked attendees. "But if it's a valuable raw material, why not take it back an re-use it?"


Before they conduct either disassembly or shredding operations, electronics recyclers should make sure they know the value of what's in their scrap, Ed Grenchus of IBM Corp., Endicott, N.Y., told attendees.

Re-use, disassembly and shredding are all being used to recycle electronic scrap, but which is most cost-effective? Recyclers are engaged in a large-scale experiment to find out.

Grenchus led two different studies--one in 1999 and one earlier this year--to take a look at the revenue returned by re-use, re-sale of certain components or materials recycling during each of these two years.

The IBM studies found better returns for raw secondary commodities (shredded or sorted ferrous, nonferrous and plastic scrap harvested from computer scrap) in 1999, when prices for precious metals and other scrap metals were an average of 30 percent higher.

The study, authored by Grenchus and three IBM co-workers, also found that more recent models scrapped in 2002 contain less precious metal content and more plastic. "Newer machines have a greater composition of the machine content being plastic, which continues to have low [market] value. There is [also] a higher percentage of plastic-intensive laptops returned in the 2002 outlook," according to the study.

The scenario for computer chips and whole computers was a little brighter in 2002, with the looming Y2K worries of the year 2000 working to suppress prices for many pre-owned items in 1999. "As a result of Y2K issues with hardware, many older `in service' machines were scrapped and the associated need for spare parts to support the installed base diminished," the study determined.

The bad news for recyclers who disassemble is that the shorter life cycle of computers and chips before they are considered obsolete has lessened the overall demand for repair parts. The good news is that when recyclers get hold of a chip or machine that is currently the leading technology, they can fetch a good price for it.

Whereas machines with Pentium III chips could go for between $500 and $1,900 in 1999, those with the current leading chip--the Pentium IV--will fetch from $750 to $2,500 today. Those current prices will only remain in effect until the next advanced chip is introduced, however.

Grenchus' message to computer asset recovery shops was, "You can't hold on to this stuff--you have to move it quickly."

The introduction of used and off-lease laptop machines has been a boon to computer recyclers who recondition and re-sell units. The demand for laptops is increasing and used ones are currently selling for roughly twice the amount of used desktop systems. The downside for machine re-sellers is that there is usually no accompanying monitor sale to go along with a laptop purchase.


A major cell phone manufacturer has conducted its own study on how to best recycle its end-of-life products.

Read about the study's conclusions in an exclusive online sidebar at

RELATED ARTICLE: California is laboratoy for electronics recycling.

Lawmakers in California are introducing legislation that could put the Golden State out front in state mandates for the recycling of computers and electronic appliances.

Speaking at the opening session of the International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment in San Francisco in May, Michael Paparian of the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) noted several initiatives underway or being considered in the state.

California is among the states that now classify monitor or television cathode ray tubes (CRTs) "as a hazardous waste, due to their lead content." Accompanying regulations are still being issued, according to Paparian, but regulations applicable to "those handling them for recyclable purposes [are] quite minimal," he told attendees.

Two bills that have been introduced in California will create a recycling fee that will be collected by retailers of new computers and other electronic devices. Those fees will go toward collection programs for end-of-life electronic equipment. One of the bills will also create a sticker system to inform consumers that hazardous materials are contained within their devices.

RELATED ARTICLE: Appropriate reaction.

The findings are hard to dispute; footage and interviews conducted by the Basel Action Network show a clear need for a change in the way electronic scrap is handled in Guiyu, China.

But what is the appropriate response? Robin Ingenthron of American Retroworks, Middlebury, Vt., has prepared a white paper with his suggestions on how U.S. companies can help make sure they are not part of the Guiyu problem.

Read Ingenthron's suggestions on how the electronics industry should respond to the problem in a feature starting on page 64 of this issue of Recycling Today.
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Title Annotation:California; International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment
Author:Taylor, Brian
Publication:Recycling Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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