eWaste to Energy? Innovative Choices

By Doug Bartholomew

The road to responsible, economical, and effective disposal of electronics waste in North America has been long and difficult—littered with unsafe conditions for workers, despoiling of the earth and air, and even a deadly explosion- and there's still a long way to go.

For CIOs looking for the latest ways to dispose of hundreds, or even thousands of old personal computers in North America—thereby avoiding having the old machines shipped to China where they are unsafely clawed to pieces by unsupervised laborers—there are some alternatives:

  • sending old PCs to an accredited recycler for largely automated dismantling and component reuse.

  • sending them to a fledgling e-waste-to-energy incinerator.

  • turning them over to UNICOR, the Federal Prisons Recycling project, utilizing manual prison labor to break down machines for materials recovery.

Perhaps one of the most promising and innovative electronics waste facilities is run by the Globally Green Energy Consortium. With some 4,000 member companies, organizations, universities, and municipalities worldwide, GGEC operates an e-waste-to-energy plant near Mexico City that processes 500 tons of materials per week, producing up to 1.3 megawatts of electricity.

Electronics components are placed on a conveyor and sent into a high-pressure compartment, where they are subjected to lasers, which convert the materials to a gas. The gas is then forced into another high-pressure compartment, where it is used to drive a power turbine. "The process is similar to the combustion engine in a car," says Zacharie Mondel, CEO at GGEC in Naples, Fla.

"The technology is similar to plasma gasification," Mondel says. He adds that such a plant costs anywhere from about $18 million at the low end, and may run up to about $130 million, depending on the size and capacity of the facility. GGEC has plans to build similar plants in Santa Cruz, Calif., and in South Africa, India, and Indonesia, Mondel adds.

That technology may sound a bit Buck Rogers-like, but others in the electronics recycling industry claim it can work. "That technology is viable," says Mike Magliaro, a founder and partner at Maser Corp., a downstream market for e-recyclers.

Maser takes entire PCs and runs them through its mechanical system that breaks them down into commodities such as steel, aluminum, copper and plastic. "You have to have a lot of volume to pay for a system like ours," says Lauren Roman, a principal at Maser, which operates a plant in Barrie, Ontario, north of Toronto, Canada.

Another innovative recycler utilizing state-of-the-art automation is Creative Recycling Systems Inc. The company's system processes up to 24,000 pounds of materials per hour-the equivalent of 800 computer monitors. The system is highly automated, utilizing shredders and separators. Material is pulverized in an enclosure under negative air pressure.

Next: eWaste Disposal Can Lead to Difficult Choices

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eWaste Disposal Can Lead to Difficult Choices

It's best to keep in mind, that instead of finding a perfectly clean and safe method for disposing of old computers, you're likely to discover instead that there are only choices: some better, some not so good, and some very bad for humans and the environment.

One reason for this mixed and highly uncertain state of affairs is that the electronics recycling business remains in its early stages, and is still evolving, with little or no governmental guidance or restrictions.

A case in point is the Federal Prisons Recycling program, called UNICOR. Officials didn't respond to requests for an interview, but the agency's Web site states that the recycling organization, which employs 1,200 prison inmates for labor to break down and disassemble computers for components and materials recycling, provides valuable training for inmates.

"This valuable training (of inmates) includes hazardous materials handling, identification and segregation of electronic components, proper operation of equipment, electronics assessment and the opportunity to obtain their GED and A plus certification," the UNICOR site states.

Unfortunately, that may not be the full story. The prison recycling agency has come under fire in the past for unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. After a whistleblower complaint, UNICOR was placed under investigation by the federal Inspector General. Federal investigators following up on the complaint about unsafe conditions at the Federal Prison Recycling operation at the Elkton, Ohio prison measured airborne levels of lead at 50 times the legal limit and cadmium amounts that were 450 times the federal legal limit.

UNICOR's recycling processes are largely manual, depending on the federal prisons' huge cheap and literally captive labor force. This lack of automation, critics charge, ultimately endangers the health of inmate laborers. "UNICOR's policy of measured modernization-limiting automation in order to maximize the number of prisoners who work-increases the risk of workplace injuries to prisoners and guards," states an Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) report on the prison recycling program entitled "Toxic Sweatshops."

For its part, UNICOR states on its Web site that it complies with federal OSHA standards. The prison recycling program's Web site asserts that UNICOR performs medical test monitoring of both staff and inmates, including blood and urine testing for "lead, cadmium, barilium (sic), and barium."

Next: Recycler Caught in Deadly Fire

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Recycler Caught in Deadly Fire

To be sure, the process of dismantling old computers, copying machines, telecommunications devices, and televisions, and handling the various plastics, metals, and chemicals they contain, is hazardous at best, and can be downright dangerous-and occasionally deadly.

One such incident occurred at MBA Polymers, of Richmond, Calif. Founded in 1994, the company operates what is widely considered to be one of the most advanced plastics recycling plants in the world. But early on the morning of October 26, 2000, an explosion and fire at the 90,000-square-foot plastics recycling plant claimed the life of a night-shift worker.

The explosion sent black plumes of toxic smoke into the sky over Richmond, forcing a dozen schools to close, businesses to evacuate, and the announcement of shelter-in-place warnings for residents and workers. More than 200 people, including area factory workers and firefighters, crowded into area hospitals, complaining of irritated throats and eyes, headaches, and other ailments.

In the morning, with winds shifting, the acrid smoke was so powerful over the town of Richmond that 2,400 employees at the Chevron Refinery were told to stay inside, while those working outside used respirators. At the nearby Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, tollworkers were instructed to leave their booths and take shelter, leaving drivers with a free ride across the bridge.

MBA Polymers recycles plastic items such as computer cases, telephones, and toner cartridges. Following the fatal industrial accident, the company cut its staff by half and reduced the amount of plastic it recycled.

Investigators for the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health attributed the explosion and fire to an accumulation of toner-cartridge dust. An electrostatic charge in a grinder may have ignited the explosive toner dust used in copy machines, resulting in the fire that killed a 26-year-old forklift operator. MBA Polymers, which didn't respond to requests for an interview, was fined by Cal/OSHA more than $221,000.

Next: What Steps Should a CIO Take?

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What Steps Should a CIO Take?

So what can a CIO do to ensure that the company's old PCs are responsibly recycled or disposed of? The key, Maser's Roman suggests, is to find a recycling partner that actually takes the time to de-manufacture the computer. "Make sure they are doing the disassembly, removing the batteries, and separating out the glass, the lead, and the other materials, and providing the documentation to prove they are doing it," she says. "Most people don't take the time to do the checking. Otherwise, if you're the CIO at a big company, and you're responsible for the disposition of thousands of PCs, how do you really know?"

Despite the efforts to improve the recycling of e-waste, and fledgling programs for converting it to energy, many companies continue to turn over their used computers to "recyclers" that simply sell the material to a broker, who in turn, ships it to China.

In an attempt to put an end to this practice, two environmental groups, ETBC and the Basel Action Network, last November announced a plan to create an e-waste accreditation and certification program that will launch next year. It will be North America's first independently audited and accredited e-waste recycler certification program, according to BAN, which is named after the 1992 Basel Convention, an international treaty aimed at reducing the shipment of hazardous waste to developing countries. The U.S. is one of only a few countries that have declined to ratify the treaty.

Meanwhile, the fact is that most companies' e-waste still gets a one-way ticket overseas. "Most companies are just exporting the electronic waste," says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for ETBC in San Francisco. "If you're going to do it the right way, you need to have safe disassembly into different materials streams, and recover as much as possible."

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