We receive frequent questions about what really happens when e-waste like a computer is picked up for recycling: That’s great! The recycling process should always be open and transparent so that it’s clear it really is making a difference. This may be especially important for organizations that want to meet internal sustainability goals of their own, or e-waste regulations in a specific region.
To help you understand the process, let’s take a look at what happens to your computer after you drop it off at a recycling center.
First, Data is Dealt With
Computer storage is a security issue that needs to be dealt with before recycling can proceed. Ideally, organizations will handle most of this themselves, properly deleting data, restoring factory settings, and removing storage devices. But even a storage drive that has been wiped can still be picked over using the right technology, and today’s durable SSDs can retain some data even if they’re smashed.
That’s a problem when sensitive information is involved. Fortunately, expert recycling services can also offer plans to deal with data drives prior to the full recycling process. In this case, drives are shredded entirely using powerful equipment and the pieces mixed together so that no data can ever be recovered. Shredding services can also offer certification to businesses that need to keep records that data was properly destroyed.
The Re-Use Phase
This phase isn’t always required, but it’s a common step for manufacturers that are taking back their own products for recycling, like Dell or Apple. Here, the organization decides if a product can be refurbished and resold or not. If a computer model is relatively new and in good condition, it’s preferable to refurbish it rather than destroy it altogether. Many manufacturers also offer trade-in programs meant for businesses that are looking to get rid of a number of electronic devices at once.
The Hands-On Phase
This is another phase that isn’t always required, but is common when recycling an entire computer. The computer may have arrived with accessories or parts that can be easily disassembled prior to breakdown. Sometimes these components can be re-sold or salvaged, or parts like circuit boards may need a different recycling process than the rest of the computer (like the cited data drives). This is the time when components will be disassembled if necessary.
The Breakdown Phase
Now the computer will be processed in a factory with powerful equipment that will break it down into small parts – and we mean very small parts, since the goal is to reduce the computer to gravel-like consistency.
The Separation Phase
With the computer reduced to small bits, it’s ready to be processed and separated. Here, the goal is to remove any pieces that can be recycled while leaving the rest behind – that generally means removing all the metal components and leaving behind the plastic. There are a number of ways to do this, but trying to separate by hand isn’t very efficient. Instead, factories use an assembly line and large magnets to draw all the metal bits away (companies like Sesotec provide equipment for this very purpose).
Once separated, the metal can be sent to other facilities to be melted back down, purified, and turned into ingots or other products for future use. The plastic usually cannot be recycled, and is processed for disposal in a landfill or similar situation.
Note: If your organization has an internal sustainability goal, many modern computers have removed as many plastic components as possible and replaced them with aluminum alloy frames and similar metals that can be recycled. It may be a good idea to focus on these primarily metal computers for future purchases. For more information, you can always talk to a manufacturer directly about the recycling process for their products.
The Glass Phase
Many computers include glass components for displays and other screen panels. These glass components can be removed and recycled with a water separation technique: Since glass is heavier than plastic, sifting them through water is an effective way of separating the glass and sending it off for its own recycling process.
Handling Precious Metals
At this point, you may be wondering what happens to metals that aren’t as easily picked by a magnet, like gold, platinum, palladium, and so on. Computers are filled with trace amounts of precious metals that are important to recover, and it’s not always easy to do this on an assembly line (sometimes certain parts, like copper components, may be stripped by hand).
Remember when we mentioned that parts of the computer may be removed, including processors and other circuit boards? This is where the majority of the precious metals in a computer reside, so these parts are often dealt with separately. They can be removed beforehand, or factories may have advanced separation techniques to remove circuit board pieces afterward. The easiest way to retrieve precious metals is with specialized processes that use powerful chemical reagents. It’s recommended that experienced professionals do this in a safe environment to reduce the chances of contamination.
Recycle Your Computer with Stream Recycling
Keep in mind, this is a common process for professional, advanced recycling services like Stream Recycling. Unfortunately, not all e-waste is recycled properly like this. For many years, e-waste has been shipped overseas for dangerous, unregulated recycling processes that contaminate the environment and the local population. When choosing a recycling service for e-waste, ensure that the service is an experienced, regulated organization that will not be shipping e-waste unnecessarily. Contact the electronics recycling experts at Stream Recycling today!