What happens to your electronics when you drop them off for recycling?

Recycling electronics is big business – an estimated $5 billion in the U.S. economy is attributable to businesses involved in the repair, refurbishing and recycling of used and end-of-life electronics, also known as “e-scrap.”

But what really happens when you drop off an old laptop for recycling? Let’s follow a hypothetical piece of e-scrap on its way to becoming new products.

An old Sony laptop is brought into the annual Keep Fallbrook Clean and Green in Fallbrook, Ca.

Sometimes, community organizations hold recycling drives - for aluminum cans or electronics - as a way to raise money.

This annual event is like many community-sponsored electronics collection events – residents can bring their old computers and laptops, mobile devices and other electronics for recycling while doing other activities to beautify their properties and neighborhoods. In California, items with display screens, like old CRT (old tube-style) and new flat-panels and  laptops, among others, are prohibited from being sent to state landfills.

Once a pallet or two of electronics have been collected, the organization sponsoring the collection notifies E-World Recyclers, a Vista, Ca. recycler. The laptop travels with other electronics turned in during the event to E-World’s recycling centers.

Several hundred pounds can be collected at electronics recycling events.

Once inside the recycling center, the laptop is inventoried, and a report generated indicating when the laptop was received, where it was collected and its brand and model number.

Next it is tested – just because it’s been turned in for recycling doesn’t mean it is unusable. Reuse and refurbishment is a very important part of the electronics recycling industry. International Data Corporation estimates that about 30 percent of the 3.5 million tons of electronics collected in the U.S. for recycling in 2010 were reused in some fashion.

The laptop is evaluated and tested to see if it can be resold as one unit.

Reuse of electronics is an important part of recycling.

If not, any usable parts are taken and resold – there is a strong market for quality second hand laptop parts, especially for parts like LCDs and CPUs.

Now that the useable parts are stripped out of the laptop, further breakdown occurs. Steel from the body of the laptop is set aside to get recycled into new steel – The Steel Recycling Institute estimates that flat-rolled steel products contain about 30% recycled content while steel produced domestically for  structural shapes have about 80% recycled content.

Aluminum is also highly recyclable – and is an ever increasing part of the new electronics sold every year. Nearly half of the average aluminum beverage can (44 percent) is made from recycled aluminum, the Aluminum Association reports.

Copper wires are bundled and sent to wire cutters and copper smelters. Circuit boards are set aside and sent to a special circuit board recycler and plastics head out to plastic recyclers where they’re made into any number of new products.

Batteries are collected and sent to a company that specializes in battery recycling.

Hard drives are sensitive parts of electronics. These drives can have all matter of personal and sensitive data on them – while they can be sanitized and resold, E-World Recyclers has decided to handle them in a different manner. The company catalogs each hard drive and secures it until it is destroyed.

When it is time for destruction, the hard drives go into a shredder that was specially built to completely destroy hard drives. The shredded hard drives then go to a refining company for further recovery.  There, eddy current separators remove aluminum from the shredded harddrive mix; copper comes out of the stream through the use of reverse polarity magnets, while traditional magnets pick out any steel left over. Plastics are removed through shaking systems, and platinum and other precious metals are recovered as well.

Hard drives are inventoried and kept secure until destruction.

Shredding hard drives destroys any data contained in the device and makes it safe for recycling.

In the end, the Sony laptop dropped off in September is now heading out as unique, specification grade commodities (steel, aluminum, and copper) into the manufacturing stream, where the commodities it was made from can become new steel, aluminum and copper products.

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