How to Recycle Electronics

By Veena Clay June 5, 2014

Recycling electronics has become a critical step in curbing the global e-waste crisis. All around the world, governments, nonprofit organizations, businesses and households are playing a role in the effort. A number of e-cycling programs are organized according to the specific nature of the electronic device being recycled. This is because each electronic device contains its own unique properties and components that must each be considered carefully during the recycling process.

Understanding the state of the e-waste problem

The monumental growth of technology has made a huge contribution to society’s progress, but it has also spurred the growth of a global e-waste crisis. This boom in innovation taking place in all parts of the world has created a surge in the number of electronic devices circulating the planet. When these devices become obsolete, outdated or in need of replacement, a stream of electronic waste is created, and it has become exponentially larger as time goes by.

Not only is the growing volume of electronic waste an issue, but its adverse effects on the environment are also a growing concern. Much of the makeup of electronics are toxic — many contain materials like lead, cadmium and mercury that can seep into the soil and groundwater in landfills. Fortunately, many U.S. states and countries have now banned the dumping of electronics into landfills, specifically to prevent harsh negative effects on the environment.

The damage to the environment does not just stop there. More waste can accumulate from electronics during the recycling process. Toxic fumes and gases can be released into the air, causing serious health risks and physical ailments. This is evidenced in China where many informal and untrained recyclers use primitive methods of extracting precious metal from electronics creating toxic environments, like in China’s Guangzhou region, well known for its heavy pollution. For this reason, the recycling process must be carefully regulated through legislation and precise safety measures.

Haunting electronics waste statistics

According to the EPA, 438 million electronic devices were sold in 2009, with another 5 million in storage. At that time, only 25% of the 2.3 million tons ready for end-of-life management were collected for recycling. The number of electronic devices in use in 2009 was double the amount sold in 1997. According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, the U.S. generated 3.4 million tons of e-waste and recycled only 24.9% of these in 2011. Additionally, the EPA continues to report that e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the U.S.

Worldwide, 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste are generated every year. Three-hundred-billion computers and 1 billion cell phones are manufactured annually, and much of this waste ends up in landfills and incinerators, improperly disposed despite legislation banning such practices. In other cases, it is simply shipped from developing countries to underdeveloped regions in China or Africa. In fact, 80% of America’s e-waste is currently shipped to China.

How are electronics recycled?

With statistics like these, the global e-waste crisis is a definite and legitimate concern. The question remains: How are electronics recycled? The answer varies according to the device. Each device has a unique makeup that must be considered during the recycling process. The condition of the device at the time of collection also matters. For instance, some electronic devices arrive at recycling centers almost fully intact, and as such, can be refurbished for resale or reuse.

Sorting is the main mode of activity for recycling electronics. Recycling centers may employ specially designed and engineered machines to sort device components according to density, weight and size. The sorting step is crucial to determine which parts of a device can be reused and which parts must be contained, harvested or receive special care and attention for proper disposal. This is why, in many cases, electronic devices are broken down piece by piece before moving on to other stages of the recycling process.

Shredding is also a key step of the recycling process. In most cases, recycling centers house a large shredding machine that cuts and grinds the plastic, wood or metal shells and frames of electronic devices to prepare them for further sorting or smelting. However, not all devices can be sent to the shredder. This is due to the presence of highly toxic or hazardous components within the device that must be manually sorted or harvested beforehand.

Because many electronic devices also contain metals such as aluminum, iron and copper, smelting is also an important part of the recycling process. Though not all recycling centers contain smelting machines, the devices are useful for ensuring that metals found in electronics can be reused in a variety of products. Recycling metals has a number of advantages for the environment, both in terms of energy consumption and in terms of providing affordable materials for manufacturers and consumers.

The goal: Recyclable components

One of the best aspects of recycling electronics is the fact that the majority of each device is recyclable. Recycling and reusing the components of a device can conserve copious amounts of energy and can be less costly than sourcing the materials directly from the environment through invasive methods such as mining or drilling.

The types of recyclable components vary according to the device. Many electronics contain plastics, ferrous metals and copper wiring. Beyond these common recyclable materials, electronics may also contain even more valuable components. Gold and platinum can be found in some cell phones. Glass and wood are also common components of electronics found in traditional monitors, screens, scanners and speakers.

Another important goal of the recycling process is the proper disposal of hazardous or potentially harmful materials. These materials are often toxic and can threaten the safety of communities as well as the integrity of the environment if left to seep into water and soil. Mercury, cadmium, lead and other toxins can often be found in electronic device components such as batteries and bulbs. Recycling processes must be designed and regulated to properly manage the disposal of these materials.

How to recycle specific electronics

Each electronic device has its own specific handling process for recycling. Recycling centers must be careful to remain informed of safety regulations regarding each device and stay up to date on new legislation involving the recycling of particular electronic devices. The following is a brief overview of the recycling process for a number of common electronic devices.

Cell phones

One of the key advantages of recycling cell phones is that most can be refurbished and resold if still operable. Recyclers test collected cell phones to determine their operational status, and if they are still functioning, they can be refurbished and sold again on the consumer market.

Non-operating cell phones are usually shredded into component parts. These parts consist primarily of plastics, metals and glass from the cell phone screens. Each component can then be recycled or repurposed. Sometimes, the metals contained in cell phones are high-grade types such as gold platinum or silver that can be collected and sold for profit or reused in other electronic devices.

Laptops

Recycling centers generally break down several recyclable components of a laptop computer: the fluorescent bulbs, the motherboard, the hard drive, the PET, the battery from the laptop and from the motherboard, the mainframe and the memory. Additionally, it is important for the recycler to wipe the hard drive of all information to preserve privacy rights and remain compliant with state and federal regulations.

Certain components must be handled with care to prevent contamination and subsequent reactions. For example, batteries and the fluorescent bulbs must be disposed of properly to prevent toxic leaks and adverse chemical reactions. The mainframe can be shredded and converted to reusable plastics and other commodities.

Desktop computers

While desktop computers (CPUs) continue to proliferate, production numbers are continually affected by the advent of newer electronic devices such as tablets and highly versatile mobile devices. Applications, SAAS technology and cloud networks are decreasing consumer dependence on desktop devices and encouraging consumers to diversify their personal electronic device repertoire.

As more and more desktop computers become obsolete, the recycling process is in high demand for these devices. However, fewer desktop computers are recycled than manufactured and sold.

Once broken down into component parts, CPUs reveal a makeup of valuable materials, such as steel and aluminum. Most CPUs are then taken through a shredder during the recycling process. The resultant material is then sorted and shipped for reuse.

Keyboards

Typically, keyboards are not repurposed. Rather, the recycling process involves shredding the keyboards down to component parts. These parts can then be used in the manufacture of new products. The most reusable components of recycled keyboards are plastics and valuable metals such as copper, aluminum and silver.

Mice

Mice make up only about 1% of the electronic waste stream. Still, they are some of the most expendable devices on the market since they can sustain much damage over time from daily use. Like many other electronic devices, mice are sent to the shredder during the recycling process and broken down into component parts that include plastic, glass (from lenses) and low-grade metals.

Monitors

Much like CPUs, some computer monitors are becoming less popular with consumers and are decreasing in production numbers as newer models arrive. In particular, CRT monitors, the bowl-shaped screens of older computer models, have seen a large decrease in popularity as flat-screen models begin to gain a foothold in the computer industry.

To be recycled, CRT monitors must be carefully broken down piece by piece. This is due to the fact that these monitors contain potentially harmful materials, such as the lead in the cathode ray tubes, which is extremely toxic and capable of seeping into soil and groundwater if not properly disposed.

A more ecologically conscious design in many modern flat-screen monitors means less toxic materials involved in the recycling process. Like CRT monitors, flat-screen monitors must be carefully separated piece by piece rather than shredded. Component parts include PET plastics, aluminum, steel framing and fluorescent bulbs.

Printers and fax machines

Recycling is perhaps the best way to preserve value in printers and fax machines. These electronic devices can be wasteful during use, but do contain a number of worthwhile components, including aluminum, copper and glass.

The first step in printer and fax machine recycling is the removal of mercury- and lead-containing components. Lamps that facilitate the scanners and copiers in all-in-one devices can contain these toxic materials. Once the lamps are removed, printers and fax machines can be shredded to retrieve reusable materials.

Copy machines

Much like printers and fax machines, large business-type copy machines contain several recyclable elements, including plastics and glass. However, most copy machines cannot be sent to the shredder until one important step is carried out. Because many copy machines contain mercury bulbs, these bulbs must first be removed before each machine can be dismantled and sorted. The mercury-containing bulbs must be carefully contained to prevent dangerous breakage or leaking.

Certain parts of copy machines can be reused. For example, the ink cartridges can be emptied and refilled. Refilled cartridges can then be sold as a discounted, recycled product. Recycled plastics and glass sold on the market can reduce energy consumption and even decrease dependence on fossil fuels.

Plasma and LCD televisions

Since plasma and LCD televisions often contain harmful components such as lead, mercury cadmium and beryllium, the goal is to keep them out of the landfills and to carefully dismantle and recycle them as often as possible. Before heading to the shredder or sorting table, however, the televisions are usually checked to determine whether working conditions are suitable for resale or refurbishment.

Plasma and LCD televisions contain a number of notable recyclable elements. For example, the backing shell is made of recyclable plastic and the frame is made of aluminum or steel. Additionally, many LCD and plasma TVs contain fluorescent bulbs that must be carefully removed and properly disposed.

Televisions

Many of the televisions made in the ’70s, ’80s and late ’90s are now less popular than today’s flat-screen and plasma TVs. As a result, recycling centers see tons of outdated console and projection televisions from yesteryear sent for recycling. These electronics cannot be sent directly to the shredder. Instead, they are taken apart piece by piece to obtain recyclable components such as wood, black and white plastics, glass, copper and other metals, PET and circuit boards.

Batteries

Many electronic devices come with a wide variety of batteries inside as useful sources of power. During the recycling process, each type of battery must be handled with care, as some varieties such as nickel-cadmium batteries and sealed-lead batteries can be extremely harmful to the environment if not properly disposed.

Recycling centers must be careful to observe state and federal regulations for the proper disposal of batteries. In the U.S., for instance, there is special protocol when handling batteries categorized as hazardous waste.

Light bulbs

Out of all the recyclable materials, light bulbs may be the most common household item as well as the most tricky item to recycle. Light bulbs fall under the heading of electronics since many electronic devices contain light bulbs, the most notable being fluorescent bulbs. These bulbs can sometimes be labeled as hazardous according to waste regulations and need special care during the recycling and disposal process.

Another factor that must be considered when recycling light bulbs, including CFL and high-intensity discharge lamps, is mercury content. Many mercury-containing bulbs are recycled by carefully retrieving the mercury, whenever possible, for reuse. It is a delicate process that only qualified recycling centers are skilled enough to perform.

White goods

Large household appliances commonly termed “white goods” should also be recycling. The process is slightly different for these types of electronics mostly due to size and variety. Additionally, these devices can contain a number of highly toxic materials such as CFCs, refrigerants, insulated foam, mercury and oil.

These contaminants can cause vast amounts of damage to the environment as well as the health and well being of humans when not handled properly. The bulk of recyclable material in white goods are the metals, which can be removed, recycled and reused. Also, some white goods are sufficiently intact to be refurbished and put back on the secondhand market.

Stereo equipment

Recyclable stereo equipment consists of digital audio receivers and speakers. Design models vary, but usually contain a number of recyclable components, such as wood, plastics, copper wiring, glass, aluminum, steel and even iron.

Once the reusable material has been harvested and removed, the frames, shells and casings can be sent to the shredder. In the shredder, the stripped plastics and other components are sorted by density and size and further broken down into smaller pieces that can be smelted (metals) or molded (plastics) for reuse.

Recycling is an interesting process

Electronic equipment bought by consumers made up 15.5% of America’s waste stream in 2010. As production numbers continue to increase, recycling processes will need to keep pace. Many individuals who take their electronics to recycling centers may be not be aware of the actual processes that break these devices down into reusable materials, harvested metals and properly disposed hazardous materials. However, the recycling process is extremely interesting and worth taking a moment to investigate thoroughly.

Recycling is the first step toward environmental responsibility, but equally important is ensuring the facility recycling your old electronic devices is doing so in an environmentally friendly and safe manner.

If you have an electronic device or other item in need of recycling, visit our recycling location search tool at 1800Recycling.com or if you are a business, manufacturer or government body interested in learning more about ERI’s recycling process and services, call us at 1800-ERI-DIRECT.