E-waste recyclers struggle to process locally

Emerging debate on merits of setting up local reycling facilities

Auckland and Wellington-based recycling company Recytech has started processing electronic waste (e-waste), sparking a potential debate on the merits of setting up local recycling facilities as against using established large-volume overseas facilities.

Recytech has previously operated predominantly as a remarketer, says general manager Brad Rope. “We’ve taken back used computers, securely wiped the disks and resold them as complete units.” However, with the obtaining of Basel certification, earlier this year, the company has been able to make a start on recycling the large amount of more fragmentary or otherwise unsaleable e-waste.

Basel certification verifies that waste transported overseas for recycling is properly routed and managed and none of it gets diverted into unacceptable means of disposal such as landfill. In New Zealand the convention is policed by the Environmental Protection Authority.

Recytech is transporting its waste to recycling plants in the Philippines and Australia. This contrasts with the E-Cycle scheme run by RCN and the Community Recycling Network, also launched earlier this year, which has tried to set up facilities to recycle as much e-waste as possible locally.

Local operations can only operate on a relatively small scale, Rope says. Economies of scale do not operate well, especially when expensive equipment has to be purchased and installed to perform the more lucrative elements of recycling such as stripping out precious metals.

At present, metal casings for computers and the copper from cabling goes to local scrap-metal merchants, says RCN spokesman John Thornhill, “but the bulk still goes overseas.” RCN has invested in equipment for splitting the front glass from the back of the CRT tube, but even the relatively uncontaminated front glass still has to be sent to Australia for processing. Circuit boards are sent to Japan.

The company is conducting feasibility studies into more local processing, “but quite honestly I don’t see too much more happening on that front,” Thornhill says.

CRT monitors, with their bulk and high lead content, are particularly undesirable in landfill. The E-Cycle scheme, operating with a $1 million grant from the government’s Waste Minimisation Fund, has been handling CRT monitors returned under The Warehouse’s Great TV Takeback scheme. The return of 28,000 tubes has exceeded expectations, pointing, says Recytech’s Rope, to the potential scalability challenge of a local operation.

However, Thornhill at RCN denies this; The Warehouse has been shipping the used TVs by the container-load to RCN on demand, so it can accommodate delivery to its processing capacity, he says. The scheme ended on October 4 and RCN is still processing the tubes.

Recytech deals primarily with commercial e-waste, so will not feel the expected post-Christmas peak arising from new TV purchases as much as some recyclers might, Rope says. There has been limited success in persuading consumer retailers of electronic equipment to put in place facilities to take back used electronics and pass it on for recycling. “Lots of retailers are keen,” he says; “but it has to be cost-neutral for them.” This implies either outside funding or arrangements for some share in the value of the material recovered.

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