Portland, Oregon - Vancouver, Washington
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|High Tech Trash : Columbia River edition : Monday, 17 June 2019 02:28 PDT : a service of The Public Press|
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Urban Salvage and High Tech Trash
by Katie Cordrey
IMS Electronics Recycling has been housed in a Port of Vancouver-owned building since 2007 and is home to an impressive operation that keeps countless tons of toxic and noxious materials from landfills and out of the hands of less conscientious recyclers.
According to IMS's Regional Business Development Representative, Jim Powers, e-waste comes from many sources: governments, businesses, individuals, and unusable charity donations are just a few. Many people have no idea what materials are in the electronics they discard or what happens to them once abandoned.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that nearly eighty-percent of the computers and computer peripherals sold in the US are sitting in closets and garages and will eventually end up in landfills, incinerators, or as exports to foreign countries. Once in faroff lands, particularly China, India, and Pakistan, electronic waste often creates hazardous working conditions for children and others who attempt to extract valuable materials such as copper, iron, silicon, nickel and gold using unsafe recycling practices. The problem is growing as cheap electronic devices become increasingly abundant.
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Powers explains that console TVs once reigned supreme, but with the advent of flat-screen and digital models, the cathode tube monsters fell out of favor. "Sometimes," he says, "we'll get a high-end projection TV that only needs a $200 bulb, but nobody wants to spend money on the old technology, so they just throw it out. There is no market for it, so we recycle the components."
The combined lure of sleeker new technology and the 2009 digital TV conversion is evident in the e-waste stream. Though they may be in perfect working order, abandoned analog signal TVs and their unwanted cousins, CRT computer monitors, are broken into their component parts for EOL handling. From glass in the monitor, to the plastic in the case, to the copper in the power supply, to the precious metals used in the circuitry, just about everything can be used. The cathode tubes are sent to an Arizona facility where the lead is removed and the glass recycled. Plastics are made into pellets and the pellets are used to make new plastic bottles and automobile parts. Wires are stripped, their sheathing recycled and their metal components reclaimed. Low-end circuit boards are shredded, but high-end circuit boards are sent to a processing facility that gleans the gold and other materials. "Nothing is wasted," say Powers, "Only wood components go to the landfill and only the CRT glass, because of the cost of removing the lead, doesn't make a profit."
This careful decomposition strategy doesn't just apply to TVs and old computer monitor screens. It is used to process printers, copiers, toasters, speakers, batteries, microwave ovens, computer keyboards and mice, weed whackers, and even toys. Between 3-1/2 and 4 million pounds of e-waste are processed in the Vancouver facility each month.
Unwanted old technology is scrapped, but many still working items like computers, are sold at weekly on-site auctions that are attended by refurbishers and resellers. Since many computers still have hard drive data, security is a serious concern. Before computers are sold, they are tested and data is deconstructed.
We have a process for everything," Powers states. "What do you do with the toner still in the photocopier? Or the paper that comes in with a printer? How about batteries? And the boxes, we have to have boxes for sorting and shipping. Nothing is wasted. Even the boxes are recycled."
Powers also points out that IMS takes its commitment to environmental and personal safety so seriously that all downstream vendors, (the businesses that process the components that IMS does not,) are audited for good practices and standards by an independent outside agency. "We can't guarantee what they do," he confesses, "but we do our best to vet our vendors. We want to see this stuff safely processed and reused in the U.S. if possible."
Much of the disassembly at IMS is done by hand: It takes only 13 to 14 minutes to disassemble a 19-inch TV and as little as 8 minutes to tear down an LCD monitor, but not all the work is done by human hands.
A large area is occupied by a state-of-the-art e-scrap management system that automatically senses and sorts materials that are fed to it. It separates plastics according to type and color and is able to distinguish circuit boards and metals from other e-waste. Once sorted, materials are routed to output chutes for collection or further handling. Some components are shredded into fine flakes and will be shipped to a downstream vendor for additional processing.
When asked how his role at IMS is like his past experience working in the pest control industry, Powers replies that both are highly regulated, environmentally sensitive businesses. "But," he adds, "this work has a lot more surprises. People stash all sorts of things inside computer cases, speakers, old TVs . . . They forget about it or their hiding place gets sent to the thrift store when they're not home. We've found money, photos and even drugs. I just never came across that sort of thing working in pest control."
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