I was lucky enough to meet the leaders of local electronics recycler Novus Solutions LLC at the City of Lawrenceville Recycling Day early this summer. Novus Solutions managing directors Ronnie Doane and John Flynn are knowledgeable about electronics recycling and very passionate about what they do. Here, Ronnie answers our top questions about how to recycle electronics. Join our tour of Novus Solutions’ Marietta facility on Wednesday, July 12 to get YOUR questions answered!
What are electronics made of?
Electronics are comprised of various plastics and metals (aluminum, copper, steel, etc.). Some electronics may contain batteries with various chemistries, such as alkaline, nickel-metal hydride (Ni-Mh), nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd), and lithium-ion (Li-Ion). Lead, mercury, cadmium, and beryllium are some of the common metals found in electronics and electrical devices that are hazardous and toxic to people and the environment if not handled or disposed of properly.
What kinds of electronics and electrical devices can be recycled? What kinds can’t?
Virtually all types of electrical and electronic devices are recyclable. Our policy at Novus Solutions is typically if it plugs into the wall or takes a battery, we accept it for recycling. This covers a wide range of equipment, including computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones, printers, audio video equipment, peripherals/cables, adapters, servers, networking equipment, telephones, cameras, and much more. Commodities can be separated from these devices and sent to the appropriate downstream vendor for proper handling and recovery. However, there are exceptions. Most exceptions are due to additives in specialized equipment — not because the electrical or electronic components are unrecyclable.
Smoke detectors with an ionization chamber are one such exception. It is not the plastics or the circuit board that make up the smoke detector that cause it to be unrecyclable, but the ionization chamber, which contains a small amount of a radioactive isotope. Shredding these devices is not an option, as it could potentially release the radioactive isotope and pose significant health risks. Some manufacturers may have a takeback program to accept their old or broken ionization chamber smoke detectors. If not, these items should be sent to a hazardous waste landfill for proper handling.
How does Novus Solutions recycle electronics?
Our two main focuses here at Novus Solutions are IT asset management and asset disposition. We work with a number of businesses, banks, schools, department stores, and other organizations where we manage surplus and obsolete IT assets in our secure area. Reuse being the best form of recycling, we evaluate computers, laptops, and other equipment for potential reuse opportunities and move these materials through the refurbishment process if possible. Equipment that fails the refurbishment process or does not meet minimum specifications will move to the asset disposition area. Hard drives may be wiped to NIST800-88 standards or physically shredded and destroyed, depending on the specific customer requirements. We operate a mobile shredder for onsite hard drive destruction and an in-house shredder for larger shredding needs.
Asset disposition is the electronics recycling component of the business. We are open to the public to drop off electronic scrap at our facility (located at 925 Industrial Park Drive, Marietta, GA 30062) and also work with recycle centers and municipalities and host electronics recycling events to collect scrap electronics for recycling. All equipment is entered in our Resource Management System for tracking throughput. Materials go through a sort/triage process to group like materials or commodities to help facilitate in-house processing. Materials that require further processing are whole devices such as computers, monitors, TVs, etc. These devices are staged for the disassembling process. Manual disassembly allows us to separate whole devices into various commodities (plastics, circuit boards, steel, aluminum, and so on) to accumulate for downstream processing. Accumulated materials are sent only to approved downstream vendors to ensure that all materials are handled properly. Approved downstream vendors are audited for compliance annually at a minimum.
Do I need to wipe personal data off of my electronics before recycling them?
It is better to be safe than sorry, which is why it is always good practice to “wipe” personal data from computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones and other data containing devices prior to recycling. This is usually easier said than done.
Cell phones and tablets have settings that allow you to reset the device to the factory defaults and erase all information. Make sure to check if you have any personal information on a separate microSD card installed as it may not be erased in the factory reset process.
Computers and laptops tend to be a lot more challenging to wipe, unless you are the tech-savvy type and can create a bootable USB from an ISO file. There are a number of free applications available that allow you to wipe your hard drive to various standards (DOD 5220.22m, NIST800-88, and more) but you cannot do this directly from Windows. Instead, you need to boot from a bootable CD or USB then run the hard drive wiping application. Wiping your hard drive can take hours depending on the capacity of your hard drive. It is best to start this application and let it run overnight. As an alternative, you can always pull the hard drive out and physically disable the drive.
Identity theft is a real and serious issue. If you are unsure, you should ask your electronics recycler about the method they use to keep your personal data from falling into the wrong hands.
Why does it cost money to recycle certain kinds of electronics?
Charges exist for a number of items and can vary from recycler to recycler. It is common to charge for CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) monitors and TVs, projection TVs, LCD monitor/TVs, and even low-grade electronic devices commonly referred to as plastic electronics or miscellaneous electronics (VCRs, DVD players, cordless phones, printers, etc.).
CRT monitors and TVs contain on average of four to eight pounds of lead. LCD monitors and TVs contain fluorescent tubes which have mercury vapor. Legitimate downstream processors of these mercury and lead containing devices charge electronics recyclers to handle and recover these hazardous materials properly according to applicable federal, state, and local laws. The money charged upfront is needed to offset the cost of the recycling efforts and operational costs for the low- to no-value electronics.
Why is electronics recycling so important? What happens if we dispose of electronics incorrectly?
Electronics recycling, or “urban mining,” is important for a number of reasons. By recycling electronics we reduce the demand for mining of various raw materials and metals, which helps minimize the impact to the environment. Recycling also prevents electronic waste from entering our landfills. A number of states have legislation in place that make it illegal to dump hazardous electronics waste in unlined Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfills; however, many states do not. Hazardous and toxic elements from electronics can leach out of the equipment and enter the water table for people to ingest. Some electronics recyclers do not perform proper due diligence on their downstream vendors and export to developing countries, where the materials are dumped, plastics are burned, and solder is melted to recover electronic components. CRT glass, board fractions, and burnt plastics litter the ground in piles. Toxic fumes fill the air from the burning plastics, and lead from the bare CRT glass and circuit boards leach into the water table. This poses significant health risks to humans and wildlife that can easily be avoided by recycling.
Electronics are an integral part of our society. Let’s make sure we do our part to recycle responsibly!