I’m at an electronics recycling center in Janesville, where dozens of old TVs are awaiting disassembly. They’re the boxy kind that you might find collecting dust in your basement.
About two decades ago, the manufacture of this kind of television mostly stopped. The industry moved away from this bulky design in favor of flat-screen models. Yet they’re still around, languishing in basements, dorms, second-hand stores. Eventually, they get thrown away for good.
Which brings us to these TVs in Janesville, which are being “de-manufactured.” These are cathode ray tube TVs, sometimes shortened to CRT TVs.
Emily Garcia is the plant manager at Universal Recycling Technologies, an e-recycling company based in Janesville.
“We’re talking about millions of pounds per year just of CRT devices…Its one of the highest value materials we bring in, people just still have them and are getting rid of them, we thought about five years ago that they’d be gone by this point, and now we’re thinking five to ten more years,” Garcia says.
When Universal Recycling began in the early 2000s, it was exclusively disassembling cathode ray tube televisions. Boutique businesses, like Universal Recycling Technologies, sprang up to recycle the expensive glass tubes within these TVs, keeping them from the landfill. Ray Zielke, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Universal Recycling Technologies, says the industry has changed over the decades.
“Technology has evolved, household computers to laptops to cell phones, and now air-pods: smaller and smaller electronics that do more and more, and they all have batteries… That’s kind of the evolution at a very high level, but the industry is continuing to grow, and we get more units every year, but the weight decreases, just from the overall size of unit.”
Now, Universal Recycling is capable of a whole host of electronics recycling. And as the variety has grown, so has their number of plants. The company now spans the country, with three other similar plants in Texas, Oregon, and Vermont.
It wasn’t just new technologies that fueled the growth of e–recycling. In 2003 e-recycling got a big break, when California outlawed putting electronics in landfills. A whole flurry of states followed suit with new regulations around e-waste, including Wisconsin in 2010. Now it is illegal to put computers, televisions, and cell phones into a landfill, as well as a few other assorted electronics.
The city of Madison sends the electronics it collects to Universal Technologies, making up some of the nearly 400,000 pounds of electronics the facility handles daily. Garcia says that every day they see products they haven’t seen before:
“Most of the time they have the same premise, look inside, see what’s in there, are there things we have to remove or can we just chuck it in the shredder and go. Every day they are coming out with a new product that has a battery inside of it. If batteries go through our shredder, that could potentially cause a thermal event, and that is what we do not want. So, in that aspect we have to look at almost every single item that comes through here and do a quality check on it before we process it.”
Whatever the type, the electronics are treated approximately the same: exterior wiring is cut, batteries are removed, and then they are run through a massive industrial shredder, turning everything into thin strips no longer than a few inches. Magnets pull out steel, and directed air blows out aluminum. From there, the shredded material is run through a large machine called an optical sorter, that uses color and sheen to sort materials by type. In the end, there are only a few constituent parts to the wide array of electronics: plastic, glass, metal, and circuit boards.
The glass is ground down into a fine powder, to be sold to manufacturers. It’s the only product from this plant that is sent directly to be remade into new products. All the other materials, though, are sold to even more specialized recyclers. These materials need more processing before they are ready to be used in new products. The plastics have to go through another sorter before they are ready to be sent to plastics recyclers. This sorter uses water at different densities to separate the plastics using flotation.
For all the extra work, plastics recycling is the least profitable material here. Circuit boards have valuable metals in them, like silver and gold, but plastic is still quite cheap. And additives are commonly added to plastic that make them harder to sort by type. Zielke says that plastics are a tough material stream to keep up to date with.
“It causes us issues, because if you look at our plastics separation model out there, we have more and more plastics falling out, because they don’t fit into the two buckets that we’re really looking for. Had we done that 10 years ago, we may have captured 60 or 70% into those two buckets, and now we’re capturing maybe 30 or 40%, because of the different plastics being used.”
In the back end of the plant, huge sacks filled with homogeneous material await shipment to the next leg in their recycling journey. In general, the world of recycling is a world of layers. Consumer goods have to go through multiple instances of breakdown and sorting before they are turned into new products. Any single recycling company is usually responsible for only a single layer in the process.
Sometimes this leads to problems in the recycling industry. Electronics recycling in particular has an unsavory reputation for stripping the valuable materials out of electronics, and then sending the hazardous or cheap materials overseas to be dumped. Zielke says they are working to ensure they don’t contribute to overseas dumping.
“What we have done is become part of the e-stewards network, its a certification where companies certify that they are not going to send waste product to developing countries…We get audited every year to that process, they come audit our books and do mass balance checks to ensure that where we say we’re sending product, its really going there. But the biggest help in alleviating that problem has been China itself, in creating their green fence as they call it, and eliminating the import of those products. They’ve done a decent job in elimination that waste going into their country.”
The volume of recycled electronics has recently stagnated. After the first wave of states outlawed electronics in landfills, other states hesitated to follow suit; currently electronics recycling is only required in about two dozen states. Garcia says they think that people tightening their belts and throwing less away in the last couple years might also be a factor.
“Last year in 2020, we saw a reduction of inbounds. We’re associating that with Covid, with people not wanting to fall cleaning or spring cleaning as much…We do anticipate that volume not necessarily skyrocketing over the next couple years, but definitely going up more than what we saw in the last few years. And that’s pretty standard in this industry overall, everyone saw a decrease during 2020 and 2021.”
The industry has also been battered by fluctuations in the shipping market. Waste industries in general have been hit hard by high shipping costs; second-hand plastic or glass is worth very little by weight; the profit is all in large volumes. But now large volumes of recycled goods are expensive to ship to facilities that can handle them, and the industry is turning to new solutions and processes:
“As a scrap facility, which this is here at Beloit Ave., its a pennies game. You’re literally making pennies per pound, and the volume generates enough revenue to make a profit. But if shipping costs eat away at that, which they have been especially this year in 2021, we’ve seen shipping costs go up anywhere from 25 percent to almost double, some our rates from different shipping lanes, so that’s obviously eating up a large part of what would be profit.”
There is a certain lag to the e-recycling industry; Much like the old CRT TVs gathering dust in the basement, the trick is predicting the next product that is ready to be thrown away. Electronics have a long life-cycle, but eventually even they need to be disposed of. Zielke says the next product they’ll have to adapt to? Solar panels.
“Solar panels have 20 to 25 year life cycles. The first solar fields especially by the utilities, the big solar fields were put in about that time frame, so there coming up to be refreshed, and now what are we going to with the old panels that no one thought of 20 years ago?”
Another possible recyclable material are rare earth metals. rare earth metals are a valuable commodity used in trace amounts in advanced electronics, and as the name suggests, are quite scarce. They are also a current pawn in geo-politics, as China has threatened to stop exporting them. If this drives the price up, the trace amounts in electronics could become worth reclaiming. There is clearly value there, but Zielke says the small volumes make it a tricky material to recover.
“There are multiple companies looking at rare earths, some much bigger than us, because of the concern over the availability of rare earths if China decides to close their borders. There is a lot of research going into that and how can we recover those because there is such a finite amount in each computer circuit board, so how do you actually recover that and cost-justify it? Versus the gold and silver and palladium where you can recover those and make money off of that.”
This is a common rhythm in the recycling industry. There is a constant push and pull to the pricing of recyclable materials. When prices of goods are high, recycling becomes viable, like with the glass cylinders in CRT TVs. But when prices are low, recycling can struggle to be profitable. Nowadays, Universal Recycling Technologies barely brakes even on them.
Image courtesy: PJ Gal-Szabo/UNSPLASH