By: Mike Breslin
The battle continues for electronic recyclers and lawmakers wanting to do the right thing – responsibly recycle e-waste.
Today, only half the states have e-waste laws to help combat the problem. Other states are considering them. Meanwhile e-cyclers must win the heated economic battle every day to stay in business.
Major forces in the fight are the state laws that govern and enforce the proper disposal of electronics. Working to provide a central source for state data and information on different e-waste recycling initiatives around the country is the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER). Formed in 2005 under a federal grant, NCER is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization dedicated to the development and enhancement of a national infrastructure for the recycling of used electronics in the U.S. Its mission: to gather information on the best research and data available on electronics recycling, make it available to all interested parties, and coordinate and participate in programs on the state and regional level…all towards improving best practices.
Jason Linnell, NCER’s executive director commented on the state of e-cycling, “We don’t see a national nexus coming into place anytime soon so one of the things we do is focus at the state level. For example, we are currently contracted with and working with Oregon and Vermont. We also have a group called the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse (ERCC), which is getting all the state program managers together who are implementing electronic recycling laws as well as the industry that is affected by those laws. ERCC is coming up with ways to harmonize and share information and make things easier for everyone trying to implement laws across the country.”
Linnell said that NCER is not trying to make state laws or make them more uniform, but make the implementation of the laws more uniform so there is consistent data such as market share information and a common tool for registering manufacturers in those states that require registration. NCER also works to unify state performance measures such as pounds collected and standards for incoming recyclables. “We are not an advocacy group,” Linnell emphasized. “We are not saying that all laws should be changed to be the same, it’s more about the implementation aspect of laws in place.”
Twenty five states have some form of law governing electronic waste. The District of Columbia has a new ordinance going into effect next year. State laws vary widely, however NCER has compiled a comprehensive, detailed summary of all state laws at www.electronicsrecycling.org.
“In 2015 there remain many areas of the country where we know very little about how much is collected, and we know even less about where any collected material might be going,” said Linnell. “Perhaps it will take another 10 years to finally have a grasp on some of these basic questions.”
Linnell observed that he has seen a lot more activity in electronic recycling over the past 5 to 10 years in both state laws and the expansion of other programs outside the law such as Best Buy taking in products at their stores and Dell partnering with Goodwill across the country. On the positive side, private programs along with state laws have increased collection volume and caused recyclers to get up to speed with environmental requirements and get certified through one of the certification programs. On the negative side, Linnell sees many challenges right now within the e-cycling industry because of lower commodity prices impacting the ability to generate enough revenue to sustain operations.
He also mentioned that there is still a special problem with CRT glass. Now that CRTs are no longer being mass made there are only limited and costly outlets to get rid of the CRT glass which has lead and requires special handling and treatment if sent to a downstream vendor.
“The drop in metal prices for e-waste recyclers since the beginning of 2014 has been pretty dramatic,” said Linnell. “There were recyclers that were depending on the revenue they were getting from circuit boards, which smelters paid based on metal and precious metals content. Whenever the metal prices drop it has an enormous effect on e-waste recyclers trying to offset CRT management costs.”
Joe Clayton is the vice president of sales for the MRP Company, based in Baltimore. Founded in 1987, MRP is a full service international metal recycling company specializing in precious metal scrap as well as ferrous and nonferrous metals. MRP is also a prominent recycler of printed circuit boards for both electronics recyclers and traditional metals industry. MRP was an early adopter of R2/RIOS, the primary certification for electronics recyclers and has ISO 14001 certification.
Clayton said, “We send board scrap directly to smelters that we collect from various dealers and e-cyclers as well as direct ship our client’s boards to smelters under MRP’s contract terms.” “Some circuit boards don’t need to be shredded because they have enough bulk density. Shredding, in many instances, can also dislodge some of the valuable precious metals if you don’t have a sophisticated downstream collection system. In many instances we either bale or send in Gaylord containers. Any effort you put on the American side is money that may not justify the labor costs. Material still has to be sampled at the smelter and go through their shredder.
“There’s not a single American copper smelter left doing precious metals recovery. There are a lot of people who say they are smelters but we don’t have any big copper smelters here. They have them in Europe, Japan, Canada and South Korea. It is important to note that it’s illegal to send circuit boards to China for recycling.
“Most of our business is based on smelting and precious metals recovery and we often work on a percentage with the customers, so our percentage remains the same as the material values go down,” Clayton continued. So if we have a contract for X percent and there’s 30 percent less recovered value, we lose value while retaining margin. So we have to source more material than ever before. But, since the explosion in commodity pricing, many players have entered the market since 2010, diluting the weight each company might have to ship at any given time. So more companies are collecting and shipping smaller quantities which we purchase to make a shippable quantity. Multiple smaller shipments increase transport costs, lessening net value to all,” said Clayton.
Clayton pointed out that today’s circuit boards have less precious metal than just a few years ago and that the price of gold is down. He said that in 2010 and 2011, when most companies got into the e-scrap business, gold was on the way up to $1,900 per ounce. Now it’s in the $1,100 per ounce range – down significantly. The older generation boards also had much higher gold content, three or four times as much, in many cases. So there was a double whammy.
Most successful electronic recyclers have a three-phase approach to operating their businesses, said Clayton. They have fees for collection, sales of scrap and sales of reusable products. “When metal prices were going crazy, some companies were not doing much asset recovery because there was marginal profit compared to years past,” he observed. “Maybe a computer was $20 dollars if you tested and wiped it and maybe scrap was $12 dollars. These numbers are just to illustrate the small spread. Now as machine values go down, the spread is widening between scrap and resale value. Many companies were saying they’ll pick up the stuff for free and won’t charge for the CRTs because there’s value in the other material. That is no longer the case.
“MRP does not handle CRT glass but many of our customers do, and they do it well,” Clayton continued. “I feel the CRT problem is overblown. It’s just like garbage. Is there a garbage problem? Everyone has to pay to properly dispose of their trash in approved landfills or alternative methods. There’s capacity for CRT recycling if companies are willing to pay a reasonable price for proper handling and recycling of the leaded glass. What I have noticed is that most leading companies are willing to charge a reasonable amount to recycle CRTs for their clients and have no problem handling the glass. Recently, some companies appear to have been trying to widen their spread by sending it to places that are less expensive than what the industry considers as an acceptable level of cost to process CRT glass.
“In fact we stopped shipping all materials to certain companies that were using questionable downstream vendors because they wouldn’t allow us on-site to audit their process, which is a violation of certifications. We requested audits in some cases because we felt that their price structure was too low and risk to reward ratio is way too high. I’m willing to pay the proper rate to have properly handled material, but I require my vendors to properly handle it.”
Clayton cited a recent, unfortunate news report of illegal dumping of electronic waste. “This is just another instance of bad actors participating in the CRT recycling stream that leaves their clients out of compliance of the standards,” Clayton concluded.
Sean Magann, commercial vice president of Sims Recycling Solutions and Larry King, the company’s director of OEM compliance discussed the state of their e-cycling business. Sims Recycling Solutions is part of Sims Metal Management Limited, one of the world’s leading publicly listed metal and electronics recyclers with operations across 21 countries. Sims Recycling Solutions provides disposition services for all types of retired electronic equipment to customers in every business sector. Most Sims facilities have attained ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001 standards and all its North American sites are R2:2013 certified to high standards for e-waste recycling.
“With commodity prices falling, business is definitely changing,” said Magann. “If you look, you’ll see there are a lot of cheaters out there. Every week it seems like another company has been exposed by not playing by the rules and illegally dumping. So the cheaters have put a lot of downward pressure on pricing and along with commodities being low, it’s created an interesting marketplace. But the good news is that some of the companies that are not playing by the rules have been exposed which hopefully will bring the pricing to where it should be.”
American Recycler asked Larry King if the 25 states that have no e-cycling laws should implement them. “That’s up to the individual states. I’ve been involved with state discussions since 2002 and many of the states that do not have laws right now have looked into it and decided that their existing infrastructure, like private programs, takes care of the issue. So if it’s taken care of, why create regulations?
“We work with the states that have laws in a number of different ways,” King continued. “In virtually every state that has passed a law they have stakeholder groups working to implement the laws and we have been involved in that. Many states have rewritten their laws, some more than once and we’ve been involved with the states in that activity along with other stakeholders to try to improve the laws. With virtually every one of these laws there are unintended consequences that nobody foresaw when the laws were being written. So there have been tweaks done to modify the laws and we’ve been involved in that.”
“When a manufacturer has been assigned an obligation as a result of these state laws, many of them work with us,” Magann commented. “They look to us as the experts and they hand it over to us to make sure they are compliant with the law. So we look at what the requirements of the law are, and what the local infrastructure is, and we work closely with local companies and entities within the state to make sure that the manufacturer is compliant and is able to sell in that particular state.”
“The problem with CRTs is not so much a problem of what to do with them, rather it’s a financial problem. There are solutions out there, some more expensive than others. Unfortunately, many folks don’t want to pay for it. That forces the downward pressure, I mentioned, when people start cutting corners.”
“We don’t export e-waste from the U.S. Our job is to take e-waste in, separate it into very clean commodity forms and those clean commodities go to smelters all over the world.”
“One of the biggest challenges we face is that in many ways it’s still not a level playing field. It seems that the bigger companies that we compete against are all playing with the same rules, independently doing responsible recycling. But there are a lot of smaller recyclers. The burden of entry into this business is very low so it’s easy to set up a small recycling operation. One of the challenges the bigger recyclers have is that we compete with these really small operations that have whole different way of doing things. It creates problems in the marketplace because these places tout themselves as “green recyclers,” but in essence they are really just traders that take in stuff and send it down the line. And they undercut the larger, certified e-cyclers in price,” Magann concluded.
*For more information go to http://americanrecycler.com