By Megan Quinn
Shredding low-value end-of-life electronics offers one last chance for recyclers to liberate valuable material, but it takes time and effort to reap the benefits.
At electronics recycling facilities around the country, a flood of defunct electronics heads for the shredder each day. Most of these are old household gadgets: Flat-panel televisions and old cable boxes mingle with broken blenders and modems, while a toaster or an electric mirror ball makes an occasional appearance. Taken individually, each of these old electronics is not particularly valuable, but when they get shredded together and sent through downstream sorting equipment, “they can go from being worth pennies—if that—to being worth much more,” says Adam Shine, vice president of Sunnking (Brockport, N.Y.), which shreds 20,000 pounds of end-of-life electronics each day.
Electronics recyclers with large-scale shredders can quickly process these low-value electronics, which aren’t practical or economically feasible for a dismantler to take apart by hand. Shredding liberates hard-to-access bits of copper, aluminum, ferrous, and precious metals, which recyclers can sort further and sell to mills, foundries, and smelters.
Shredding may save time and labor, but it still takes a lot of effort to squeeze value out of tired desk lamps and outdated tablets, recyclers say. They must closely monitor their stream to pluck out products that would earn more money when refurbished or dismantled, all while watching out for batteries and other components that are harmful if shredded.
Some recyclers struggle to make shredding economically feasible because they can’t gather the volume needed to match the processing and maintenance costs, says Rike Sandlin, founder of electronics recycling consulting firm Rivervista Partners (Oklahoma City). Several recyclers are moving their focus away from shredding and are investing their time and energy in more lucrative electronics recycling services, such as IT asset disposition, refurbishing, and business-to-business work, he says. A Midwestern electronics recycler says it, too, is considering shifting away from shredding services to focus on its ITAD and dismantling services. Even so, there will always be a need to shred electronics that are at their end of life. Shredding operations with the right material flow and solid end markets “can find the space and the opportunity in the market for that truly low-value end-of-life material,” he says.
To shred or not to shred
Most electronics recyclers see their shredder as the last resort for end-of-life electronics, even if shredding is a big part of their business, Sandlin says. That’s because recyclers can typically get a higher price for electronics that can be refurbished, reused, or disassembled for valuable parts. “It’s more economical and it’s better for the environment than shredding,” he says.
Recyclers see reuse “as the highest and best form of what we do, and that drives our decision-making process,” Shine says. With so many types of electronics coming into the facility on a given day, workers must be able to identify potential high-value items and make quick decisions about whether to set them aside for the dismantler or reseller. “The first question we ask ourselves is, is there a reuse or refurbish value? Or is there value to be had in dismantling or removing a component? If we believe an item has a component we can pull or refurbish, we want to do that,” he says. Sunnking diverts about 65% of its inbound feed for reuse, refurbishing, or dismantling each day. It shreds the other 35%.
Determining what has value and what doesn’t requires knowledge of market conditions, common components inside certain electronics, or sometimes just a hunch, says Gary Diamond, president of Quantum Lifecycle Partners (Toronto). “It’s a constantly evolving conversation,” he says. Is the item mostly made of very-low-value plastic? Is there a heat sink or circuit board inside? Does the item still function? If so, would it fetch a high price if refurbished or resold? Diamond’s company has several locations throughout Canada, each with its own market. “The answer might be different in each of those locations,” he says.
Labor costs factor into this decision-making process, too. “We look at the [dismantling] time versus the value associated with each unit,” Shine says. “It might not be economically feasible to pay someone to dismantle it” based on how long it might take for someone to reach the valuable parts inside, he says.
The longer a company is in the shredding game, the more it can learn about which types of electronics might be worth the time and effort to dismantle, says Megan Tabb, director of sales and compliance for Synergy Electronics Recycling (Madison, N.C.). Her company shreds low-value electronics as part of its range of electronics recycling services, which includes ITAD and extended producer responsibility services. Most of the laptops and desktops Synergy receives get dismantled to reach the circuit boards, but some models have more value than others. “Generally speaking, electronics that have a decent amount of precious metal, which is concentrated in the circuit board, would get hand dismantled, while an electronic device with a lower-value circuit board that has higher copper, steel, or aluminum content would go to the shredder,” she says.
Shredding as a service
Since end-of-life electronics’ value varies from item to item, recyclers with shredders need to process high volumes of material to justify the cost to run the shredder, and they need to get the most value out of the shredded materials as possible, Sandlin says. “Installing or having a shredder and running it regularly are very capital-intensive. Once you commit to doing that, you have to feed the beast. You have to have a lot of flow, because you want to run it around the clock. Acquisition of material to feed the beast is crucial.”
One approach is to acquire materials selectively to maximize what little commodity value they have. “If you’re doing a great job of acquiring the material that goes into the shredder, the commodity values will occur on the other end,” Sandlin says. “For example, that could mean buying items with a lot of great circuit boards as opposed to buying electronics made up of a lot of plastic.”
Another way electronics shredders “feed the beast” is to take electronics from other recyclers who don’t have the equipment or capacity to shred them on their own. About 40% of the electronics Synergy shreds comes from other electronics recyclers, who send consumer electronics like radios, hair dryers, and blenders—“basically, anything you’d use in your home that’s not a TV or computer,” she says. Accepting material from other companies means these shredding operations don’t have much control over the value of the stream, but they can make up for it by charging their clients a shredding fee, Tabb says.
Ten years ago, Synergy used to send its end-of-life electronics to a scrapyard that had an auto shredder, but it knew it was losing valuable metals. “They were able to recover the steel, but not the circuit boards or the copper content, since everything is so small, relatively speaking,” she says. Synergy felt it could find a robust-enough material stream to make investment in its own shredder worthwhile, so it “applied a similar shredding technology on a smaller scale, then programmed it to fit what you would find in an electronic device.” Its dual-shaft shredder processes about 100,000 pounds a day.
CompuCycle (Houston) entered the end-of-life electronics processing arena when it opened a 40,000-square-foot facility with a new automated shredding and separation system in 2018. The system includes a four-shaft shredder, an eddy-current separator, and optical sorters. CompuCycle expanded its existing data destruction equipment and ITAD services into an additional 80,000-square-foot facility. Owners Kelly and Clive Hess say they started planning for the shredder in 2017. CompuCycle had been sending its own low-value electronics to another company to shred, but markets were changing, and China had recently announced it would no longer be accepting low-value electronic scrap. “For our products that needed to go to a shredding plant, we were concerned about how the downstream [processors] would handle the material. We got to a point that we didn’t have downstream [vendors] we were comfortable sending our material to, so we decided to become our own downstream so we could control and monitor the entire process,” Kelly Hess says. It was a big decision, but the Hesses say the company is well-positioned in the Houston area, where there are few businesses with large-scale shredding capabilities for end-of-life electronics. Today, CompuCycle shreds about 40,000 pounds a day, which is about 40% of the electronics it receives. The other 60% is refurbished, reused, or dismantled.
Electronics recyclers need a shredder that will liberate the material into manageable pieces for further sortation without losing or unnecessarily damaging material, Diamond says. “The whole trick is getting good separation and a uniform size that doesn’t create a lot of fines,” he says. “When it comes to shredding mixed consumer electronics, in North America at least, the majority [of recyclers] have settled on shear shredders.” Quantum Lifecycle’s Toronto facility and CompuCycle’s facility in Houston both use a four-shaft shredder that cuts material into 2-inch pieces. Synergy uses two quad-shaft shredders back to back: The first one shears pieces to between 3 and 4 inches; the second shredder cuts them further into 1- to 2-inch chunks, Tabb says.
Sunnking’s dual-shaft, 100-hp shredder is smaller than ones typically designed for end-of-life electronics shredding, but the company was cautious about ramping up its operations too much and getting buried by unexpected maintenance or downtime costs, Shine says. It was originally located off-site and used for shredding hard drives, “which was overkill for that task,” he says. In 2016, Sunnking moved its facilities into a state-of-the-art, 204,000-square-foot warehouse and decided to bring the shredder in-house for end-of-life electronics processing. “We wanted to walk, not run,” he says. The company then invested in a ringmill, along with conveyors with magnetic head pulleys and a large picking line for picking out aluminum.
Shredding operations commonly install ringmills after the shredder to liberate different types of materials from each other, such as a metal screw still attached to a plastic blender base, Tabb explains. “Ringmills can be a fantastic way to clean up the ferrous stream,” Diamond says. Quantum Lifecycle has acquired several Canadian recycling facilities in the last few years, each with different equipment, so the company sometimes only uses the ringmill for size reduction and material separation, even though it creates more fines than a shear shredder. Other locations process scrap using a chain shredder or a standalone hammermill to separate thicker, denser metals, he says. Each recycling company has its own combination of downstream sortation equipment, some of which is proprietary, Tabb says, but it often consists of eddy-current separators, optical sorters, and hand sorters.
These recyclers say they prepare their material for the shredder in similar ways. Workers hand-sort the electronics to take out high-value components, mercury-containing components such as fluorescent bulbs they sometimes find in LED and LCD televisions, and batteries, which can cause fires or explosions if shredded. Clive Hess says this process is the most important for the health and safety of the workers, but the labor, plus the cost to dispose of hazards safely and correctly, “is an enormous cost center for us” that will only go up as more and more devices have small, hidden, or “surprise batteries,” he says. Other forbidden items workers remove during hand-sorting include wood cabinets from speakers, electric cords, glass, or oddities like ceramics.
Putting the right things in the shredder is important for reducing maintenance and downtime costs, which can be “killer” when volume is so important to the success of electronics shredding operations, Shine says. When the shredder is not running, “if you’re not making salable commodities, you’re paying major maintenance expenses, and you can run out of room to store material destined for the shredder.”
Strong relationships with buyers are essential for electronics shredders, especially when markets and refinery needs change so rapidly. “Every smelter and refinery has different criteria,” Diamond says. Quantum Lifecycle sometimes sells its sorted, shredded circuit boards to refineries in Canada, Europe, or Japan, “depending on the markets, the grades they want, and the terms,” he says.
Shine says most smelters consider Sunnking’s consumer electronics shred—made up of items like receivers, cable boxes, and printers—a lower-grade product, “whereas a higher grade would be straight circuit boards.” Sometimes that works out in Sunnking’s favor: “Certain refineries want lower grades. If they have a lot of capacity, they will take anything, but when they have low capacity,
they focus on acquiring the high-value stuff.”
Refiners take samples of material to set the price for the scrap they buy. Both Sunnking and CompuCycle say they run batches through their shredders in a certain order, or “recipe,” to create a consistent downstream output with balanced proportions of commodities. “The refiner has a sampling process that is random, or they take a little bit from every box,” Shine says. “Say, for example, you’re lucky, and they sample the box with the shredded copper yokes from CRTs. You ‘win’ on copper recovery, but we don’t want to win or lose—we want consistency. It’s a constant task to figure out how to get the mix correct.”
Electronics shredders also must decide whether it’s worth the time and money to send some materials to another processor to increase their value. Quantum Lifecycle sells its shredded aluminum to an auto shredder or auto-shredder-residue plant for further processing, Diamond says.
These recyclers say their main downstream headache is plastic, a low- to no-value commodity with few markets. Synergy generates a shredded mixed plastic product that, historically, it sold to processors in China, then Malaysia, then Thailand. “Now it’s hard to find outlets for that plastic stream,” Tabb says. The company has a partnership with RePolyTex (Madison, N.C.) to further clean, grind, and form the plastics into a “plastic plywood” that has a variety of uses. CompuCycle is looking for domestic markets for some of its plastic, including ABS and some mixed polymers. “We’re looking forward to some companies in the U.S. [emerging] to meet that demand,” Clive Hess says.
Shine says unwanted plastic shows up in his copper and precious metal streams destined for refining overseas, which cuts into profits. “We are paying transport and refining fees for the plastic, when we want high copper, gold, silver, [and] palladium returns. Somehow, 50% is straight-up plastic because we lack some of the downstream equipment that can separate plastic out but can be very costly.”
In June, eCycle Solutions (Mississaugua, Ontario) announced that it created a proprietary float-sink technology that separates metals and plastics according to density using a water and salt solution. The system can process up to 20 mt of mixed plastics from electronics per hour, Michael Collins, eCycle’s president and CEO, announced in a news release. The company plans to partner with Canadian and international e-scrap recyclers to further purify their metal streams.
Paying a downstream processor like eCycle is one way to get a cleaner metal stream, but these recyclers say they’re also doing constant calculations to determine whether they should invest in updated sorting technology in their own facilities instead. Robotics and upgraded optical sorter technology are enticing possibilities, but the large upfront costs for such machines may not be worth the investment, especially when it’s already so much work to squeeze value out of the stream, these recyclers say. Shine says Sunnking has considered purchasing additional advanced separation equipment, “but we have seen other companies go out and invest millions, then sink their company, either because they don’t have enough material to feed it, or because the systems they invest in don’t create the kind of clean stream that was advertised.”
Sandlin says he doesn’t see many businesses planning to invest heavily in the shredding and downstream segments unless there’s a specific niche to fill. Instead, he sees existing shredding operations that are building strong relationships with buyers and looking more closely at their streams for lucrative reuse and refurbishing opportunities. Successful electronics recycling companies know how to balance the shredding side of their operations with their other e-scrap services, like ITAD and resale, he says. “Electronics recycling is dynamic—it changes all the time. These companies know that and know how to respond to that.”
Megan Quinn is senior reporter/writer for Scrap.