Image: HYLA

New research shows that 50 million tons of e-waste was generated in 2018; this is the equivalent of 2,850 cars dumped into a landfill every hour of every day for a year (PDF by HYLA). E-waste can be defined as discarded electrical or electronic devices that has reached end-of-life. This article takes a look at how different e-waste technologies—sorting, shredding, separating and smelting—can be used to reclaim precious metals from consumer electronics that can no longer be used.

Sorting used electronics by condition grade

In some ways, the secondary market for consumer electronics and cell phones are still in the Wild West stage of development. Currently, there’s no technical definition of what is considered A, B, or C grade. Industry experts concur that there’s a somewhat universal understanding of what A grade is. A grade is when something does not have cosmetic damage, it does not look used, there’s not a lot of wear and tear and it’s been restored to a condition that would be Like New. While a B grade product is functional, it’s in good condition, it’s working, but maybe there’s some nicks, and it looks like it’s been used, but it still functions with just a little cosmetic damage. When you get down to D grade, that’s a product ready for parts harvesting.

Reselling Grade A Consumer Electronics

Major retailers with a surplus of grade A & B products—such as trade-in inventory, buyer-remorse returns, and overstock product—can earn revenue with this type of inventory by reselling on the secondary market. That’s where a B2B liquidation platform like B-Stock comes into play. B-Stock provides private marketplaces for nine out of the top 10 retailers to sell bulk lots of used electronics to a network of professional resellers (learn more about selling on the secondary market).

For retailers with mass inventories of C & D grade products that can no longer be used, then techniques like parts harvesting, shredding, and smelting can be used to retrieve precious metals and recycle the different parts and components.

Shredding end-of-life electronics

If a product can no longer be used by an end-user and it has reached its end-of-life cycle, then it’s time to warm up the shredding machine. Before any products enter a shredder, an e-waste facilitator, such as ERI, will remove any valuable, still functional parts of the device. These parts can then be sold to refurbishers who use them to fix other devices that can then be resold.  

After the still-functioning parts are removed, an e-waste facility will then sort the broken devices into like-items. For example, printers that are made of the same type of plastic will go into the shredder together; especially if those printers all have the same flame retardant plastics in them. In this way, the e-waste facilitator will get the cleanest output of commodities possible. When talking about shredding and smelting, the end-product is called a commodity, such as pure aluminum or steel, which can then be turned into something else, like a ladder or a hammer.   

After shredding, the shredded material goes through a very technical process of sorting and separation.

Separating shredded material

Separating shredded material can be done a number of different ways, including shaking, magnetic separation, or a float-sink method. These separation techniques are applied to separate the aluminum from the copper and the plastic from the shredded steel and so on.

Separation methods can even separate stainless steel from regular steel and can even separate out the different types of plastics, like light plastics from dark plastics. And then there’s the various types of circuit boards. There’s differences between high grade boards, medium grade, and low grade boards. All of that gets separated out for the purpose of creating a clean commodity, which leads us to the next topic, smelting.

Smelting separated shredded material & finding precious metals

Image: HYLA

Smelting is the process of applying heat to ore in order to extract out a base metal. When a recycler sends product to a smelter, they melt it down into reusable metals, for example, aluminum can be instantly reusable to be made into a ladder, or a tool, or a park bench. Plastics can also be melted down for reuse as long as the mix is correct.

Electronic devices contain more than just plastic, aluminum, and steel. They also contain precious metals. For example, circuit boards contain gold. In those cases, e-waste processors will sell the boards as a shredded commodity to a precious metal smelter. Companies like ERI get the product to a clean commodity so that it’s ready for smelting and then they send it to the smelter, and they melt it down and recover the precious metals.