In an enormous warehouse just outside Chicago, pallets of computer monitors, hard drives and keyboards wait for disassembly. Bales of wires stand ready for pickup. Buckets of printed circuit boards glint with copper and gold.
Intercon Solutions is one of the nation’s largest e-waste recyclers, pulling in $7.5 million in revenue last year through its 250,000-square-foot processing facility.
It’s not a glamorous business, but it is a growing one. The U.S. generates about 3 million tons of electronic waste annually, yet recycles just 15 percent. More states are expected to pass or strengthen e-waste laws – presently only 23 have one on the books – and the electronics industry recently stepped up its efforts, too, announcing plans to triple e-cycling rates by 2016. At the federal level, President Obama established an e-waste task force and legislators introduced a bill last fall to ban e-waste exports.
Handled improperly, however, e-cycling poses a serious health and environmental hazard. Reports continue unabated of illegal electronics dumping overseas.
In India and China, where an e-waste site may be nothing more than a village street, unprotected workers out in the open extract precious metals by burning piles of PVC-coated wires or soaking circuit boards, releasing toxins such as lead and mercury into the air and water.
Even in the U.S., companies such as Intercon – that pledge to recycle 100 percent of materials and deal only with domestic processors – are the exception rather than the rule. Less stringent businesses may reclaim valuable metals and other materials, then dump the rest in landfills (where pollutants leak into the ground), if not sell it overseas. Or their methods may be subpar, such as shredding components, which comingles metals and plastics (that end up as waste), and lofts dangerous residues into the air.
“There’s a huge difference between true end-of-life recycling versus other recycling,” says Intercon CEO Brian Brundage, who estimates that perhaps a quarter of domestic e-cyclers are properly qualified and certified for the job.
E-waste firms are in fact de-construction firms. In some cases, they may transform the materials themselves into a new product, but mostly they’re a meticulous way station where multi-material devices are dissected and refined into elemental components (aluminum, steel, gold, etc.), then sold back to the manufacturing industry.
At Intercon, for example, once workers disassemble computer processing units (CPUs, the big blocks that sit under your desk), hard drives head to one part of the warehouse where they’re stripped of precious metals and sent through a type of warping/compacting machine that renders the data unreadable. (It’s a step beyond wiping the hard drive, requested by Intercon client the U.S. Department of Defense.) The remaining aluminum – 85 percent of the hard drive – is destined for new products such as car parts or furniture.
Intercon partners with other companies for processes it doesn’t handle on site such as removing the plastic casing from copper wires or smelting circuit board metals, before sending materials to the proper end user (e.g. the wire manufacturing or electronics industry).
The company also accepts its clients’ light bulbs, batteries, paper and packaging waste. The latter led to an interesting exception at Intercon: polystyrene. Brundage, 39, who started working in a scrap yard as a teen, designed a machine to compact the foam right on the factory floor into hard ingots for plastic lumber and parking lot bumpers that he gives back to clients.
But why bother? Most e-cycling companies don’t. Is it even lucrative?
At heart, Brundage says he’s a treehugger, dedicated to decreasing waste and conserving resources. “I want to offer a real recycling solution,” he says. “We need these metals and materials so badly.”