Can E-waste and Metals Recovery Efforts Lower Environmental Risks and Liability?


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Gold, palladium, silver, and other precious metals (PMs) in manufacturing wastes represent high value, but how PMs are recovered can pose environmental and liability issues. Aerospace and electronics manufacturers and suppliers, in particular, produce volumes of manufacturing wastes that contain varying levels of PMs. With U.S. growth projected at around 2% in 2019 [1,2], there may be an opportunity for more manufacturers and suppliers to review current methods and move to higher ground.

This would include printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturers. Although bookings for PCBs have fallen from recent peaks, shipments have been up about 10% through the third quarter of 2018 [3]. There are two waste streams for recycling and recovery for manufacturers to consider—the electronic waste (e-waste) from manufacturing operations and end-of-life (EOL) product recycling.

On the manufacturing side, a waste audit can identify areas where more PMs might be captured for recovery. This includes both highlevel PM residuals from manufacturing operations— such as precious metals plating solutions, conductive pastes, filters, and sludges—and lower-level PM residual materials—such as syringes, wipes, rags, gloves, solder waste, and floor sweepings. Manufacturing wastes also include damaged parts and returns, as well as finished electronic components and PCBs that are outdated or obsolete. These items may also need to be handled according to industry and government standards.

Security is often a paramount concern. The design of PCBs may be proprietary, classified, or under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) restrictions and sensitive components may need to be destroyed or obliterated to render information “irretrievable by any means.” The environmental impact of recycling and recovery efforts is also a key consideration especially for government entities, consumer product companies, and other public corporations.

Beyond e-waste from manufacturing, EOL recycling is a growing concern for OEMs since it can impact operating costs as well as brands. As environmental issues grow, it also can im pact PCB suppliers both directly through new quality or compliance requirements, or indirectly through a change in customer or public perceptions. Whether that is a threat or an opportunity depends on a variety of factors and how companies including recyclers choose to respond. Environmental considerations can often be downplayed, ignored, or simply overshadowed by the drive for maximizing returns, and smaller operations may be more vulnerable.

Of course, manufacturers, suppliers, and recyclers must comply with regulatory requirements and operate profitably in a competitive marketplace to remain in business, yet how companies respond can have long-term consequences.

Environmental liabilities can surface years later from improper management and challenge a company’s reputation or very existence. Liability can also lurk closer to home. When any recycler goes out of business and leaves a mound of hazardous waste behind, there can be finger pointing and a search for deep pockets [4]. For these reasons, it is important for manufacturers and suppliers to develop close, trusted downstream relationships and understand recycling and recovery processes and the ultimate fate of their products.

Baseline Value

The value of recycled e-waste can vary widely. Recent bans from China and Thailand on e-waste emanating from the U.S. further devalues recycled e-scrap in the U.S. and puts pressure on collection facilities, landfills, and tipping fees. At the same time, the value of recovered precious metals can gyrate, making planning difficult. The profitability of recovery and refining operations is often closely tied to metals commodity prices, and foremost among those is gold. Over the last 10 years, gold has swung from below $750/oz. in 2009 to a high of nearly $1,900/oz. in 2011 before settling into a range around $1,250/oz. ±$200 [5]. Palladium has seen even wilder swings with prices jumping over $1,100/oz. in the last month from $175/oz. a decade ago. Manufacturers should seek waste recyclers that are financially stable. Those in a better position to withstand market fluctuations are also more likely to value their reputation and environmental responsibility and have programs in place to ensure environmental compliance and traceability.

There is also variability at the part level for electronic scrap. The amount of gold in a dynamic random access memory (DRAM) can easily vary by a factor of three or more depending on the exact part and manufacturer.

Counterfeit parts in EOL waste streams can also confound expectations about returns. Fair pricing for e-scrap is often a matter of experience with a supplier and trust that builds over time. Speculators can acquire parts and either hold them for years hoping for market conditions to change for resale, or seek an immediate premium on the precious metals content, but may generate ill will.

Looking ahead, miniaturization, substitution, and advanced electronics manufacturing techniques will likely further reduce the already low levels of precious metals in key components, putting a further squeeze on the recycling industry. This means that while there are a variety of advanced recovery processes available or under development for precious, base, and rare earth metals—proven methods of recovery—and refining will likely continue  to predominate for the foreseeable future.

Recycling Overview

Whatever the prevailing value of the underlying metals, electronic manufacturers often want to reduce the volume or bundle their scrap. Some recyclers offer one-stop services and may shred e-scrap on site before hauling it to another downstream vendor. On-site shredding can be advantageous for volume reduction to lower transportation costs and destroy intellectual property. However, it can make recovery of targeted PM components more difficult if not impossible. Closed-box services can offer an alternative with shipments directly to a PM recovery operation. Locked-box services go a step further with the secure shipment of high-value items. Secure transit can be accomplished through the use of seals, evidence tape, or lockable containers.

To read the full version of this article which originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of PCB007 Magazine, click here.

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