Dennis Betts watched workers load about 2,000 pounds of aluminum from old televisions onto a shipping trailer. Betts is director of operations at eLoop, an electronics recycling and teardown center located in State College’s former Corning factory.
Walking through eLoop is almost like visiting a museum of technological advancements, from 70s TVs with wooden frames to flat screen televisions, commercial copiers and business phones.
“The majority based here come from collections, like your local recycling centre. We have points all over the state that way,” Betts said. “And we also have companies that we deal with as well.”
At eLoop, experienced technicians do most electronics disassembly manually with drills and hand tools. But some electronics recycling facilities around the world have further automated this disassembly process.
Flat-screen TVs are a common disassembly for eLoop employee Zachary Jeffries, and he said taking them apart and sorting them out is a quick process.
“About two and a half to three minutes,” Jeffries said.
After workers finish dismantling and sorting the electronics into their separate materials, such as glass, plastics and metals, they are often compressed and loaded onto pallets. Betts said the materials are then shipped to other specialized recycling facilities which can continue the recycling process.
“Everyone thinks recycling everything is easy, but there are a lot of components that we have to find a supplier to take,” Betts said. “Your margins are very difficult. It is therefore a question of overcoming, of finding the right suppliers with the right downstream who treat this correctly… without ending up in a landfill. Don’t end up somewhere it shouldn’t be. It’s actually being treated correctly is the hardest part.
Lead, mercury and other potentially toxic materials in electronics can make safe recycling difficult and expensive. Betts motioned for the workers to dismantle a flat-screen television. The bulbs inside contain mercury.
“The hardest part is collecting the bulbs. And then collecting them and keeping them neat and clean in the collection bin is the hardest part. And mercury exposures are the most difficult. Making sure we don’t break them manually,” Betts said.
eLoop is an e-Stewards certified facility, which means they ensure that recycling is done safely, both at their facility and at all the companies they work with in their recycling network. Betts said recycling facilities without these types of credentials cannot guarantee their electronics are safely recycled.
“Every supplier we use has to have an endorsement. The endorsement would be from the time we send it, where it goes, until the end of life. Whether it’s a foundry or a reuse goal. Some standard recyclers collect it, but they don’t follow the same standards we do,” Betts said.
E-Stewards facilities also adhere to strict data privacy standards to ensure that sensitive information is protected behind a lock and key, erased and hard drives shredded upon request. As more consumer electronics devices contain potentially sensitive information, data protection is an important part of the future of e-waste recycling.
eLoop operates another facility in Export, Pennsylvania that focuses on finding a second life for certain electronic devices like cell phones through refurbishment. Refurbishment of electronics is generally the most environmentally friendly option, as it minimizes the need for new raw materials and keeps these items out of recycling and waste streams longer.
When asked what was the hardest to recycle, Betts pointed to a palette of TV tubes from old box-style televisions.
“CRT Television glass, the old tubes that are in TVs because of the lead content,” Betts said.
The lead in the tubes makes it difficult for Betts to find a supplier to recycle them further. Some of the tubes may have been made right here in the Corning factory decades ago.