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CB Materials: Recycle, Reuse, Dispose?

One of our readers from last month's article Make a PCB with your laser printer raised an interesting concern about the disposal of chemicals used to make a homemade PCB.

In that particular article, we discussed making your own PCB using ferric chloride, which cannot be disposed of by simply pouring it down the drain, since it is both bad for the environment as well as the copper drainpipe. It should be disposed of at a hazardous waste facility. This led me to question, in more general terms, what about the disposal of manufactured PCBs? After all, consumer demand for electronic devices is at an all time high, and each device contains one or more PCBs, therefore disposal of waste PCBs is a growing concern.

Recycling PCBs is challenging, since a PCB contains several different chemicals, metals (including precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper), and glass fibers. The recycling of these materials is important from both the perspective of waste reduction as well as of recovering scarce materials.

For example, Tantalum, an extremely good conductor of heat and electricity, is one such scarce material that is commonly used in high-performance capacitors on PCBs in mobile phones and personal computers. In fact, it is thanks to Tantalum that electronic devices have become much smaller and more sophisticated than ever before. Since Tantalum is in such high-demand and difficult to substitute, recycling it from end-of-life electronics is important to its sustained use.

According to the American Journal of Environmental Engineering, electronic waste (E-waste) is the fastest growing waste stream in the industrialized world. They estimate that 95-97% of the e-waste by weight contains metal, glass, and plastics, which can easily be dissembled and recycled by conventional recycling practices without damaging environment. However, it is the rest of the 3-5% of e-waste that consists of PCBs/connectors that need environmentally friendly recycling techniques to manage.

These components are typically ground to a powder to recover metals such as tantalum, gold, silver, and copper for resale. The recycling of PCBs can actually be a profitable business. However, not surprisingly, due to the high cost of labor in the US, most end-of-life electronics are exported to other countries such as India or China for recycling.

While the majority of e-waste is generated from the public and private sectors, the availability of low-priced consumer electronics means that household disposal of end-of-life electronics cannot be ignored. My household is probably an extreme example. My husband and I are both engineers, and we have a basement full of old computers that we just couldn't bear to see disposed of because they still worked fine. We either paid a token fee for them or got them for free when the companies we worked for wanted rid of them. At the time, we thought that they would be perfect for the kids to use one day. Now, several years later, they still sit unused in our basement collecting dust.

The CPUs cannot support the high-performance games that my son likes to play, and my daughter simply cannot have one of those unsightly dinosaurs in her stylish room even though they would work just fine for browsing the web. Reluctantly, I've decided that the time has come to get rid of them.

Unfortunately, I can't even seem to give them away. I asked at my kid's school if they needed or wanted a few old but working computers, but even they kindly refused since they were not up to par with current technology. Thankfully, I found a local technology recycling center that will take them off my hands. How about you? Are you a technology pack-rat with a home or office full of old electronics?

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in EBN's sister publication EDN .

7 comments on “CB Materials: Recycle, Reuse, Dispose?

  1. Daniel
    December 23, 2013

    “I asked at my kid's school if they needed or wanted a few old but working computers, but even they kindly refused since they were not up to par with current technology. Thankfully, I found a local technology recycling center that will take them off my hands. How about you? Are you a technology pack-rat with a home or office full of old electronics?”

    Nicole, disposing e-waste is a global concern and it's very difficult for recycle in a safer way. Now some of the companies like Nokia, Flipkart etc are accepting/exchanging their old products for recycling. But around 98% of remaining e-waste is accumulating around us, in unsafe manner, which can create hazardous to human and other living creators.

  2. Houngbo_Hospice
    December 24, 2013

    @Jacob: Even though this is a global concern, it is up to each country to implement policies that are appropriate to the “electronic use culture” of their population. In some countries, “reuse” no longer makes sense, whereas in others it does.

  3. SunitaT
    December 26, 2013

    Every development project gets OK TESTED by Environmental Impact Assessment Board. This means that companies take full responsibility of the wastes produced and formulates ways to dispose of the wastes thus produced. Smaller companies don't usually do this, because these ways of disposing of wastes have a high overhead and the smaller companies cannot make enough profit if they dispose of wastes correctly. Larger companies which assemble parts from the smaller companies don't take the time out to reuse/recycle the wastes because that rule doesn't involve their trade policies.

  4. SunitaT
    December 26, 2013

    @Jacob: E-waste wouldn't generate if independent companies would know the aspects of disposing of wastes in the long run. Although initial costs of recycling are high, it pays off in the long run, as e-wastes would continue to build up. Recycling companies can make fortunes out of e-waste.

  5. Taimoor Zubar
    December 26, 2013

    “In some countries, “reuse” no longer makes sense, whereas in others it does.”

    @Hospice: I think the products cannot be directly resued without any modifications. Reusing the components and making them in a workable state involves a lot of labor efforts. In countries where labor is cheap this is a viable option but not in countries where labor is expensive. This is why they don't have the reuse option and are forced to dispose off electronic items.

  6. Taimoor Zubar
    December 26, 2013

    “E-waste wouldn't generate if independent companies would know the aspects of disposing of wastes in the long run”

    @tirlapur: That's true but I don't blame the companies entirely. In the competitive environment, companies are forced to cut costs and not spend anything extra. Spending money on recyclable packaging will only pay off if the customers appreciate that and are willing to pay more for it. I don't think customers these days want to do that.

  7. Daniel
    December 30, 2013

    “Even though this is a global concern, it is up to each country to implement policies that are appropriate to the “electronic use culture” of their population. In some countries, “reuse” no longer makes sense, whereas in others it does.”

    HH, US and some of the EU countries are dumping e-waste to African countries, on some other names. Recently I read that a plan for dumping it in mid sea; which can create more hazard to sea living specious.

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