Between 2009 and 2012, the European Union (EU) funded an aptly-titled project called the Recovery of Electronic Waste through Advanced Recycling and Demonstration (REWARD).
How recycling plant managers can improve high value recovery of electronics
Although the project has concluded, electronics recycling and recovery is an ongoing task in many recycling plants. Here, Stephen Harding, managing director of recycling materials management specialist Gough Engineering, explains how recycling plant managers can improve electronics recovery and reap the rewards.
The EU has a number of schemes, initiatives and directives that all promote the idea of recycling materials wherever possible. Achieving the circular economy, or a society in which nothing is wasted or disposed of until its potential value has completely depleted, is one of the EU’s key objectives in the twenty-first century.
Of course, this isn’t an entirely new concept. Businesses have long understood the benefits of drawing the most value from assets as possible. The only difference is that now it’s become a more important issue for wider society, with the competitive advantage provided by asset utilisation replaced with economic and environmental responsibility.
Effective materials recovery is critical in ensuring that the electronics recycling, or e-cycling, process is as effective as it can be. In a typical electronic application, there will be hundreds of resources with little reusable value and many components made of high value materials. Recycling plant managers will naturally want to recover as many valuable materials as possible with little waste mixed in.
As EU Commission environmental spokesperson Enrico Brivio says of electronics recycling, “the more valuable our waste becomes due to pressures on our resources, the more we will need the technologies and innovation to pump it back into the economy instead of burying it or burning it”.
This means that companies need to increasingly invest in quality handling and processing equipment to ensure that they can extract as much value from the electronics equipment as possible.
Electronics recovery is a particular challenge compared to other materials recovery applications. Gough Engineering has worked on a number of applications, for example removing nails from construction pallets so the material can be reused and sorting plastics so they can be shredded and used as feedstock for masterbatches.
However, in electronics recovery, there are bigger challenges to face. Irregular shaped products will pass through the processing line, meaning that handling equipment needs to be adaptable to a number of potential products.
Separating irregularly shaped products in the recycling industry
High rates of valuable material recovery is only possible through specialised screening and separation equipment for recovery operations. In most applications where screening is necessary, there is a risk that screen blinding will impact throughput rates.
For example, one stage in the recycling process of a standard refrigerator involves the unit itself being shredded down to separate insulation foam, electronic matter, metals, plastics and gases. From there, each component goes its separate way.
The foam, for instance, is ground into a powder to release the gases contained within it and the resulting polyurethane powder then moves on via a conveying system to another part of the plant for handling.
When this powder is being screened, the powder may accumulate and block the mesh, a phenomenon known as screen blinding. This is not an uncommon occurrence and, from Gough Engineering’s experience in material processing, can be prevented by using screens that include an ultrasonic pulse together with a vibratory motor.
However, it’s also vital that no valuable electronics or metals are mixed in with the foam ahead of the grinding process. To ensure this, recycling plant managers must use a screening and separating system that can effectively sort the shreds of polyurethane from the steel fragments or gold-containing circuitry.
This is just one example of electronics recovery. More commonly, the recovery process is exclusively about extracting the precious metals from circuitry. Recently, Gough Engineering worked with a customer to supply handling equipment for their electronics recycling plant.
The customer uses the heat and ultra-violet light properties of plasma to smelt and separate the precious metals contained within electronics waste and then convert the catalyst material into an inert, safe, reusable product.
By using this method, the customer manages to generate a much higher recovery of materials, with over 98 percent of material typically recovered. This includes metals such as gold, silver, palladium, copper, iron and tin. The process also destroys all the hazardous elements from the electronics waste.
Handling equipment for recycling processing plants
Gough Engineering designed the handling equipment to fit within the materials handling needs and layout of this plant. Each recycling processing plant will require something different from its screening and separation systems, whether it is due to the flammability of processed items or granularity. The layout of the plant may also influence the handling systems, if processes are carried out on different levels.
By consulting with a materials management specialist, plant managers can determine the best equipment to maximise the value of their operations and the space that they have available.
The EU anticipates there to be more than 12 million tonnes of electronic waste across Europe each year by 2020. By investing in the right equipment to sort through waste and recover valuable materials effectively and efficiently, recycling plant managers can be rewarded with lower output and input costs, less processing downtime and a greater contribution to Europe’s circular economy.