Focus, Sustainability, and Technology

Video: Coping with technology graveyards

April 12, 2013
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Coping with technology graveyards
Nearly 1.8 million tons of technology waste is sent to landfills each year while only 650,000 tons are recycled. Courtesy Thinkstock

If your office has a corner or unused cubicle that has become home to all of the outdated and broken-down technology you don’t know what to do with, Valley City Electronic Recycling wants to talk to you.

VCER is an environmental service firm that helps companies dispose of unwanted electronics in an environmentally friendly way. The company does the de-manufacturing of the equipment, preparing it for shipment to its actual end use.

The company said that while businesses with e-recycling programs are on the increase, there are still a lot of companies that don’t know what to do with their electronic waste and either let it accumulate in their office for years or end up trashing it.

As of 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that of the 2,440,000 tons of disposed-of technology waste — which included computers, monitors, hard copy devices, keyboards and mice, televisions, mobile devices and TV peripherals — 1,790,000 tons were sent to the trash. Only 649,000 tons, or 27 percent, was recycled.

It seems a little hard to believe that with a generation of Americans now in the work force who grew up with recycling and trashcans side-by-side, a greater percentage of discarded technology isn’t making it into a recycling facility.

Jason Kehr, partner and sales rep at VCER, said, that a lot of what the company does is to educate businesses about the e-recycling process.

Dismantling is one of the most important aspects of keeping technology — and the environmentally hazardous materials from which the equipment is constructed — out of landfills.

“We make sure that we dismantle all the products in our facility,” said Dave Perry, VCER general manager. “That’s typically how that stuff ends up in India (or other countries) as a whole piece of equipment — like a TV, for instance.

“A whole TV or a whole monitor gets shipped over there, and there’s a cost to the glass — a big cost — both in handling it and recycling it properly. Companies over there, they take the valuable stuff — the circuit boards, plastics, metals —and then they pitch all the stuff that is going to cost them money, so that is where the biggest problem is.

“By us dismantling it and controlling that dismantle process, we can assure that everything is taken down to a component level where it is an actual commodity.”

At the commodity level, the material can be sold and used to create new products.

One of the most difficult items to recycle is cathode ray tube glass, which is used in old, box-style TVs and computer monitors.

“If you are looking at just pure weight, CRT glass has the highest percentage of heavy metals in it,” Perry said. “There’s four to seven pounds of lead in each CRT monitor, and that is primarily contained within the funnel glass. In order to recycle that properly, you need to separate the funnel glass from the panel glass and, basically, it needs to be cleaned and then it is ready to go into a glass furnace to make a new CRT.

“CRT glass is a huge problem in the U.S. right now. There was just a study done that shows they are estimating there are 660 million pounds of CRT glass sitting in warehouses right now in the U.S. that recyclers have taken in (and) said they are recycling, but they are just stockpiling.”

The reason is that recycling options are limited and therefore costly, and demand for CRT glass is down now that flat-screen TVs and monitors have taken over the market.

VCER recognized this as a problem several years ago and began building its own machines to decrease the cost of CRT glass recycling.

“Rather than pay someone else to cut the glass and get it ready, we saw an opportunity to reduce our expenses by building these machines and actually putting a process in place to cut them ourselves,” Perry explained. “It was brought on by market demands, as far as cost, and this was a way that we could handle and control our costs.”

Perry said that as far as he knows, VCER is the only company in Michigan that processes CRT glass onsite.

Not all electronics that come into VCER are bound for the dismantling process. Items that are still in usable condition can be prepared for reuse. The data is wiped from the machines and the company then helps find a new home where the items can continue to be used.

For companies with employee buyback programs, VCER will remove the asset tags, evaluate the equipment and wipe the hard drives and storage devices for the company.

“We also do asset management, record serial numbers and asset tag numbers so that the companies that send it here have a record to take it off their books.”

The company can provide several levels of data wiping, from Department of Defense level wipes all the way down to reformatting the hard drive. It also has an onsite hard-drive shredder and will allow clients to watch the shredding or will certify the destruction.

Two industry standard certifications exist in the world of technology recycling. VCER has the Responsible Recycling Practices for Electronic Recyclers Certification, also known as R2 certification.

“What that does is it ensures that we have policies and procedures in place for our own workers health, but also our downstream vendors. … We have to audit our down streams to make sure they are doing the right things as well, both from an employee health and an environmental health standpoint,” Perry explained.

R2 certification requires a high level of tracking through the whole process, from intake of equipment to where it ends up. It also requires an environmental, health and safety management system, which incorporates best practices for worker health and safety, data destruction and security, the environment, and domestic and international downstream management of end-of-life electronic material equipment.

VCER was formerly a division of Valley City Environmental Services, but growth contributed to the decision to make the company independent in 2012. The company runs its operation with an average of 20 to 25 full- and part-time employees. Its dismantling process requires about six to 10 employees; in a week, 100,000 pounds can be dismantled.

The company works with a wide variety of clients throughout Michigan and offers its services to both corporate and residential customers.

E-recycling rates are alarmingly low given the decreasing refresh rates and shortening life cycle of the products coming to market.

VCER would like to see recycling rates jump and is eager to start conversations with Michigan companies about how to develop their e-recycling programs and do away with the technology graveyard taking up space in their office.

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