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Electrical and Electronic Products Infrastructure Facilitation

Prepared in association with Centre for Design at RMIT and Product Ecology Pty Ltd
Department of the Environment and Heritage, January, 2004

6. Reprocessing Markets

6.1 Overview

Recovery and reprocessing of EEPs takes place in a number of ways, including refurbishment and repair for reuse, recovery of individual components for reuse, and recycling of individual materials in both 'closed-loop' and 'open-loop' operations.

While each of these options provides a better alternative than disposal in landfill, reuse of whole products and components is preferred as a means of extending product life and minimising environmental impacts over the total product life cycle. These options also maximise the commercial returns from recovery of used products, and are therefore critical to the economic viability of any recovery program.

Other important criteria in assessing recovery and reprocessing options include:

The barriers to effective reprocessing of EEPs include the complexity and costs of disassembly; and limited markets for some of the component materials. The most problematic materials are leaded glass and plastics.

Current reprocessing activities and alternative technologies and markets are analysed and discussed in the following section under four headings:

6.2 Current Reprocessing of EEPs in Australia

6.2.1 Reuse

There is a strong second-hand market for a range of EEPs in Australia, including large household appliances, computers, televisions and other items of consumer electronic equipment. This often occurs informally, for example by giving away products to family members, friends and neighbours. Individuals also sell equipment by advertising in newspapers (e.g. The Trading Post), and many commercial businesses exist to repair and/or resell EEPs. Repair of broken EEPs is becoming less common due to the high costs of repair relative to the cost of new products.

Computers are also sold through the large and popular Computer Marts. Meinhardt found 189 companies listed in the Yellow Pages selling computers aged between 2 and 7 years old5.

A number of community organisations refurbish old computers for reuse. Examples in Australia include Com IT (repair computers for use by community organisations) and the Green PC (repair computers for use by low income earners).

Both MRI and HMR repair and resell computers through their retail operations, and export computers for refurbishment and resale in overseas markets. There is a strong export market for computers for reuse, based on lower income levels in Asian markets and lower labour rates for repair and refurbishment.

Electronic waste, including computers, is considered hazardous under the Basel Convention. In 1994 parties to the Basel Convention (Basel Convention on the Control of the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their disposal), now over 60 countries, agreed to an immediate ban on export of hazardous wastes destined for non-OECD countries. Export of hazardous waste from OECD countries to non-OECD countries for recycling was banned from December 1997. In Australia, the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1989 ('the Act') was developed to enable Australia to comply with specific obligations under the Basel Convention.

Computers and peripherals that are destined for reuse are not controlled under the Act even though they often require minor repairs to restore them to working order prior to sale. The term minor repair does not include reconstruction of single units from multiple units. Used computers exported for disassembly and reprocessing are classified as wastes under the Act and therefore require an export permit6. The distinction between waste and product for the purposes of the Act is currently under review by the Department of the Environment and Heritage to improve clarity for both industry and compliance assessment purposes7.

6.2.2 Reprocessing

There are two major companies in Australia involved in disassembly and reprocessing of components and materials from computers and televisions - HMR and MRI.

HMR has plants in the US, Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane in Australia.

They have a 'Central Processing Facility' (CPF) in Sacramento, California, where CRTs are banned from landfill. Consumers pay a disposal fee at the transfer station, and part of the fee is used to pay HMR for recovery (paid by weight). The CPF for Australia is located in West Heidelberg, Melbourne.

In the Philippines HMR have a refurbishment facility (NAMRAC), around 20 retail centres and a crushing facility for CRTs. The Australian operation currently includes a testing and sorting facility, a crusher for CRTs and a retail outlet. The processing plant may be relocated to a more central location, such as Wagga Wagga, in the future. While their core business is computers, they also take back other obsolete electronic equipment from industry, and after testing will either resell or reprocess it. Televisions returned under warranty to Panasonic and NEC are disassembled and reprocessed by HMR.

Incoming computers are tested and classified into grades listed in Table 3.2, i.e. according to their value and the degree of repair/refurbishment required. Equipment that cannot be repaired and resold is disassembled for recovery of components and materials in the following categories:

The Melbourne CPF has a CRT crusher that can process up to 200 - 300 tubes per hour. Plastic casings, circuit boards and wiring are manually separated first. The CRTs are crushed and metals and leaded glass separated for recycling. The very small quantities of phosphor lining are also extracted for disposal to secure landfill.

MRI has facilities in Melbourne and Sydney. Computers are either repaired for sale or disassembled for recovery of electronic components and materials. The major difference to the HMR operation is the disassembly of CRTs to separate the front glass from the rear glass. This is done using a specially designed machine that uses thermal shock to crack (not shatter) the CRT around its weld. The front glass (which contains very little lead and some barium) is processed locally by Visy, while the leaded rear glass is sent to a smelter. MRI process 5-6 tubes per hour. The other variation is that printed circuit boards are currently being stockpiled while the company investigates the feasibility of investing in technology for automatic separation of electronic components. Reprocessing of individual materials is discussed in sections 6.4-6.6.

6.3 Disassembly Options

If a product is too obsolete or damaged to have a reuse market, it needs to be broken down into its constituent components and materials.

The most detailed available data on components and materials from computers and TVs currently entering the waste stream is available from an electronics recycling trial conducted in Minnesota in 1999 and 2000 (Table 6.1)8. The data on materials collected shows that 25% of monitors and 71% of computers were exported for reuse. A high percentage of the remaining material was leaded glass from the CRTs, making up 34% of material from monitors and 31% from televisions. The remaining material was steel, plastics, electronics and wood casings from older TVs.

The most common practice internationally is to disassemble products into their constituent materials manually, using simple tools such as a hammer and screwdriver. Products currently entering the waste stream are generally not designed for disassembly, which means that many of the parts are difficult or virtually impossible to take apart. Manufacturers have started to design new products with disassembly features, such as, a reduction in material types, material labelling, and parts designed to clip together without using metal fasteners. This means that products entering the waste stream in 5-10 years time will be easier to disassemble, but the large wave of products expected to enter the waste stream prior to this will continue to be problematic.

Obsolete household appliances such as fridges and washing machines are currently recycled in Australia by shredding and recovering ferrous and non-ferrous metals. One option for computers (but not CRTs) is to recycle them using the same shredding process to recover the metals. The disadvantage of this option is that it would result in a high percentage of residual shredder fluff or 'flock'. The flock is made up of a mixture of plastics, rubber, textiles, fluids and other materials. Disposal routes for this material in Australia are currently limited to landfill, or potentially energy recovery in the longer term.

There would be some concern about the disposal of this residual material to landfill due to the presence of flame-retardants in the plastics. By breaking the materials down to fine particles, the shredding process has potential to increase the ability of the flame-retardants to leach out of the plastics and into the surrounding environment. The DEC have highlighted concerns about the potential leaching of hazardous substances such as lead, mercury and brominated flame-retardants from computers in landfill9, and shredding may add to this problem.

During the Minnesota trial, products that were seen as having the lowest commodity value from the mixed household EEP stream were sent to an automotive shredder to investigate viability of mechanically recovering metals and plastics. The project found that the shredding process was not worthwhile, because the shredded material had no additional value unless it was separated first, and separation would eliminate any potential cost savings from shredding10.

Automatic shredding and sorting of electrical and electronic equipment is also undertaken overseas using specially designed equipment. Rather than disassembling products by hand, complete units are shredded, and basic materials are separated using sophisticated automatic sorting systems. According to one source, the machines cost over US$1million each, and require at least 3 million pounds (approximately 1.4 million kilograms) of material to be shredded each year to be economically viable. A number of problems with the equipment have also been identified, and their overall economics remains in question:

There are only a few of these shredders in use internationally. Shredding of whole products is not undertaken in Australia, although as outlined above, CRTs are shredded and sorted automatically by HMR. Other technologies are being investigated for separation of the different types of plastics (see section 6.5) and different types of glass in CRTs (see section 6.6).

Table 6.1: Secondary markets for computers and televisions from the Minnesota trial12
Secondary material
% by weight
Computer monitors
Personal computers (CPUs)
Copper yokes
CRT glass (glass-to-glass)    
CRT glass (lead smelter)
Export (reusable)
High-grade circuit boards  
Low-grade circuit boards
Insulated copper wire
Plastics (ABS and HIPS)
Plastics (HIPS)    
Steel breakage (baled)
Power supplies  
Waste (mostly wood and plastics)

6.4 Reprocessing Options and Analysis - Metals

Metals in computers and TVs include steel, aluminium and precious metals (in the electronic components).

Due to the relatively small quantities of waste circuit boards in Australia, and the complexity involved in recovering the different metals, local processing for metal recovery is presently not economically attractive. Therefore the only viable option for recycling at present is through export to overseas refineries. Good export markets exist for these materials. The boards are shredded and fed into a smelter for electrolytic copper recovery and chemical recovery of precious metals

However, waste circuit boards are classified as hazardous under Australia's Hazardous Waste Act, and may only be exported without a permit for processing in OECD countries. If shipments were to transit through non-OCED countries, then they would require transit permits. HMR sorts circuit boards into high and low value boards for export, while MRI is stockpiling them while the company further investigates the feasibility of investing in processing equipment.

Circuit boards from computers and mobile phones have a relatively high value, while those from appliances and consumer electronics are relatively low in value. However, even printed circuit boards in computers are reducing in value as manufacturers try to cut costs by reducing the amount of precious metals used in manufacturing. This has implications for the overall viability of recycling electronic equipment in the future.

6.5 Reprocessing Options and Analysis - Plastics

Barriers to effective recovery of plastics from computers and TVs include:

The major plastics used in electrical and electronic products and their most common applications are:

The best data available on plastic components in computers and TVs is from the demonstration project in Minnesota (Table 6.2).

Table 6.2: Plastics from computers and televisions collected through Minnesota trial13
Plastic resin
% by weight
Television plastics (%)
Computer plastics (%)
PP or PE

6.5.1 Polymer Identification

Labelling of plastic components is improving as manufacturers implement design for recycling principles, but problems still exist. These include the fact that many components are still not labelled, in many cases the label is too small to read quickly, or it only lists the major polymer and not the additives. The international standard for polymer identification (ISO 11469) provides for polymer constituents and additives to be identified, e.g.:

>ABS< Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene

>ABS-FR< Flame retardant ABS

A new international protocol (PROMISE) is being developed to facilitate the embedding of information in products using microchip technology. Information on the chip would include materials and potential secondary markets, as well as instructions for disassembly. Australia's role in the project is on the plastics component, this work is being carried out by Swinburne University. Industry partners in Australia include MRI, AEEMA and Polytech Resources, but additional funding is required for information dissemination.

6.5.2 Flame Retardants

The presence of halogenated14 flame-retardants in plastics is another major barrier. These are used in four areas: printed circuit boards, components such as connectors, plastic covers, and in cables. Scrap fire retardant plastic typically contains 7-8% by weight of brominated fire retardants, together with 2-3% antimony trioxide. Similar levels of brominated flame-retardant and antimony trioxide are present in waste printed circuit boards.

Flame-retardants such as Polybrominated Diphenyl Ether (PBDE) can form toxic compounds during processing15. One report by several NGOs in California stated that:

"…due to the risk of generating dioxins and furans, recyclers sometimes abstain from recycling flame-retarded plastics from e-waste. Because most computers lack proper identification of plastics containing flame-retardants, most recyclers do not process any plastic from e-waste."

The report claims that PBDE forms toxins call Polybrominated Dibenzo Furans (PBDF) and Polybrominated Dibenzo Dioxins (PBDD) during plastics extrusion processes16.

The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) in Australia released a report in 2001 on brominated flame-retardants17. Polybrominated flame-retardants (PBFRs) were declared Priority Existing Chemicals for review in March 2000. The report found that some PBFRs have potential to act as carcinogens, endocrine disrupters and neurodevelopmental toxicants, but that there is inadequate data on others to fully assess the risks involved in their use. They recommended that labels, materials safety data sheets and other hazard communication materials be amended to reflect existing information on hazards for these chemicals.

Once again this problem will be alleviated as new products that have been designed for environment work through the system. Production of Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs) has been banned in the US since 1977 and PBBs are apparently no longer produced anywhere in the world. In Europe the use of PBBs and PBDEs has been reduced through a voluntary agreement between industry and the OECD since 1995. The EU's RoHS Directive requires the phasing out of PBDEs.

Despite the potential hazards outlined above, plastics with flame-retardants can be reprocessed safely if correct procedures are followed. Marplex supplies virgin flame-retardant ABS grades to the Australian market. On their web site they advise that:

…flame-retardant grades must be processed according to recommended procedures. At no time should the melt temperature of a flame-retardant grade of ABS or alloy exceed 250oC. Temperature in excess of those recommended could result in the release of noxious and corrosive vapours. These vapours can have acute adverse health effects on operators and cause mould and equipment corrosion18.

There has been some success internationally in establishing plastics recycling programs for electrical and electronic products. Seimens Nixdorf has established an in-house recycling facility for their own products, including a sophisticated plastics sorting plant. During the pilot phase they found that labelling of the plastics was unreliable, and installed an infrared spectroscopy sorting system. This sorts plastics into categories suitable for Seimen's own products which are; PC, PC/ABS, ABS, PPE/PS and PMMA. The regrind is then compounded and blended by Bayer, an example is the manufacture of a recyclate-containing a PC-ABS blend called Bayblend 390. The resin is 25% recyclate mixed with virgin resin. This is used by Seimens Nixdorf to make new printer housings19. Dow also makes a recycled PC-ABS blend called RETAIN.

Matsushita is developing a recycling system to remove flame-retardants using a solvent process, and is planning a commercial launch before March 200420. The Matsushita Eco Technology Center (METEC) was established in response to the Electric Home Appliance Recycling Law that was introduced in Japan in 2001. METEC disassemble and recycle televisions, refrigerators, air-conditioners and washing machines. Plastics from televisions (around 23% of TV components) are currently incinerated, although plastics from other products are recovered for recycling. For example, PP, PS and polyurethane from refrigerators are recycled21.

The Minnesota electronics recycling trial included an extensive study of plastics recycling. The plastics from the trial were sent to MBA Polymers, a durable plastics processor and technical research facility in California. APC and WM-ARG were asked to exclude TVs with high levels of lamination or high levels of obvious coatings. WM-ARG also sorted the plastics into 3 categories:

The plastics were processed to reduce the size and remove metal contamination, before going through a proprietary process to produce discreet streams of plastics. The plastics were then identified by resin type using equipment developed in conjunction with APC. Eight distinct resins were identified, with HIPS predominant at 56%, followed by ABS at 20% and PPO22 at 11%. One of the aims of this part of the study was to determine whether distinct streams of plastics could be processed and reused for high-end applications. MBA focused on the largest component - flame retardant HIPS - and successfully produced an almost pure stream of the recycled resin. Processing trials for the HIPS showed that the properties of the recycled HIPS are comparable to virgin resins, and therefore could be used in similar applications. MBA is also confident that they could produce high quality ABS and PPO23.

6.5.3 Australian Markets for Reprocessed Plastics

A small market exists for clean, sorted HIPS and ABS in Australia, and a much wider range of polymers can be exported. China is the major market. HMR is in the process of negotiating to buy bales of plastics for export to Malaysia, including ABS, HIPS and PC, for processing by a company called Fragstar. The plastics will need to be sorted by polymer, and flame retardant plastics need to be sorted from non-flame retardant plastics. Unlabelled plastics from the older machines are problematic and will need to go to landfill, although every effort is being made to sort all major plastic components.

Very little manufacturing of computers and TVs is carried out in Australia, which limits opportunities for closed loop recycling. Reln moulds TV casings for Panasonic in Sydney, but material from end-of-life products cannot be recycled back into new mouldings. A major problem is the presence of contaminants such as painted finishes, so even waste from the manufacturing process and off-spec product tends to be recycled into other products such as pipes.

Close The Loop® recently established a new facility in Thomastown, Melbourne, to recycle printer consumables (e.g. toner and inkjet cartridges). Some cartridges are returned for remanufacture and the remainder are recycled using a combination of patented materials separation methods. All materials are recovered for reuse with zero waste to landfill. The company has patented a new process to sort the 10 to 12 different polymer types to produce pure streams of ABS and HIPS (these two resins make up the highest percentage of plastics used in cartridges, and need to be sorted from other polymers as well as each other, as they are incompatible in reprocessing). Residual mixed polymers will be processed into high quality timber replacement products. In the medium to long term Close The Loop is interested in expanding their operation to possibly include printer and photocopier housings. Partners in the business include OEMs such as, HP, Lexmark, Canon, Epson, Brother and Panasonic.

Fuji Xerox has undertaken a recycling trial of plastics from copier housings in conjunction with Visy Recycling. Fuji Xerox was asked to keep HIPS separate from other plastics, and to remove any metal fasteners. Approximately 1 tonne of material was collected and processed by Visy, but the trial was not particularly successful. The plastics were not sorted to a sufficiently high standard, and were exported for reprocessing. Visy has since decided to consolidate their plastics recycling business and now focus almost entirely on post-consumer PET recycling. Fuji Xerox is exploring options for export of sorted plastics to Japan for closed loop recycling, but this would require a permit under the Basel Convention as the material is currently classified as hazardous waste.

Marplex sells a wide range of engineering plastics to the Australian market but not to the computer or TV manufacturing industry. A small amount of moulding for TVs in undertaken in Australia (for Panasonic) and none for computers. The challenge for any major recycling program would be to find economically viable markets in applications that are less demanding than those for virgin ABS or HIPS, for example in junction boxes that require the same properties (e.g. heat resistance) but where colour is not critical. The recyclate would include a mix of colours and carbon black might need to be added to produce a uniform colour. The virgin polymers are relatively expensive (around $3.50/kg for ABS and $4.50 - $5.00/kg for FR-ABS), so there may be opportunities to sell the recyclate into less critical applications if the final price can cover sorting and reprocessing costs24.

TP Recyclers will take both ABS and HIPS from EEPs if it is clean and sorted carefully. They have processed ABS from computers in the past and claim that the presence of flame-retardants is not a problem. HIPS from these sources is sold to a local manufacturer of picture frames. They will pay approximately $150 tonne25.

Vision Plastics, suggest there is a small market in Australia for this material if sorted by polymer and there is no contamination. Unlike TP Recyclers, they do believe that halogenated flame-retardants are a problem. Their view is that if a large program is established for the recycling of computers and TVs, the plastics will need to go overseas - Chinese buyers are "more relaxed about flame-retardant grades", but offer a lower price for flame-retardant grades compared to non-flame retardant grades and usually require the material to be separated. The world market for plastics is depressed at the moment and therefore it is difficult to predict pricing. "When/if the project gets underway, that would be the time to get serious about pricing of plastic scrap"26.

Polytrade, one of the major exporters of plastic scrap, says that there are markets in China for clean, sorted HIPS, ABS and PC from computers and TVs, regardless of colour, in regrind form27.

6.6 Reprocessing and Options Analysis - Glass

The CRT is the display unit of televisions and computer monitors. Lead and other elements are added to protect the user from x-rays generated within the CRT when it is operating. The rear portion (the funnel) and the neck surrounding the electron gun contain approximately 21-25% lead oxide for this purpose. The front portion (the panel) generally doesn't contain lead oxide, although some panel glass types do contain up to 5% by weight28. In later model CRTs, barium oxide is used instead of lead oxide.

6.6.1 Markets for Glass Recycling

Markets for the glass depend on whether or not the front and rear glass is separated prior to reprocessing. MRI separates the panel glass for recycling by Visy Glass. The glass is crushed into 0-10mm pieces and sold to fibreglass manufacturers (there are 3 such companies in Australia and Visy supplies all of them). The material is handled by Visy separately to other glass, in a fully automated process, to ensure that it is managed in a safe and environmentally responsible way. According to Visy, the fibreglass manufacturer heats the glass to 1500oC and the molten glass is then processed into fibres. All of the barium and strontium present in the original front panel CRT glass remain encapsulated in the glass fibres. At this stage there do not appear to be any barriers to expansion of this market for the non-leaded glass component of CRTs. Visy is unwilling to take the leaded funnel glass due to the OH&S and licensing implications of handling a product that produces lead dust during processing.

Markets for the leaded glass are more problematic. All of the glass from HMR's processing plant is contaminated with lead as the whole CRT is crushed to recover mixed glass and metal. In comparison, the MRI process of glass separation is both time and labour intensive, and MRI also needs to find a market for the funnel glass after separation from the panel.

The leaded glass appears to only have two viable options at this stage:

Reuse of CRT glass in new CRTs is practiced overseas. For example, METEC manually separate the front and rear glass, and then crush the glass into 50mm pieces, this is then sent directly to a CRT manufacturer.

Glass to glass recycling is not possible in Australia as CRTs are not manufactured here and none of the overseas manufacturers are interested in taking CRTs from Australia. There are also other barriers to closed loop recycling internationally:

Open loop recycling of CRT glass is reuse for anything other than the manufacture of new CRTs. The use of CRT glass in other secondary markets identified for recycled glass29 is limited by the lead contamination. For example, the use of CRT glass as an abrasive, filtration medium or as an aggregate could cause unacceptable health and safety risks. Despite the fact that Retrosystems in the US claims to be developing a system that powderises the glass and suspends it into an 'inert' building product30, its use in products such as concrete, tiles and paints would only be a short-term solution. It would result in contaminated waste when these products reach the end of their life.

The Department of the Environment and Heritage has noted that there is a market for leaded glass in Europe for adding to ceramic melts, after the removal of phosphors. This opportunity is presumably available due to the relatively high content of barium and strontium in the panel and of lead in the funnel31. Another possible market mentioned in one US study is for use in the manufacturing of experimental X-ray blocks32. The Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER) is also funding a research project with Glass Technology Services Ltd and Precious Metal Industries on turning leaded glass from CRTs into sodium silicate and metal alloys33.

According to a Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) report, recycled glass can be used as lubricants, core additives and fluxes in metal foundry work and fabrication, as well as flux in the ceramics industry34. International programs do not appear to offer any other easy solutions as lead smelters are the major market for leaded glass currently.

There are three ways that CRTs can potentially add value as a raw material in lead smelters:

While the extraction of lead produces some value, it is relatively low compared to the value of other metals. Recently quoted prices from the London Metal Exchange (LME) gave lead at US$458/tonne, while aluminium was US$1 407/tonne and copper US$1651/tonne35.

Fluxing agents are materials that are added to improve the properties of the slag, which is comprised of unwanted materials from the ores, such as iron. Fluxing agents help to separate molten iron from molten lead. Without the addition of fluxing agents, the slag would also have a high melting point and be impossible to handle. Fluxes reduce the melting point and make slag easier to manage. Conventional fluxing agents are limestone and silica (e.g. in the form of crushed quartz).

Pasminco has been working for a couple of years to increase the intake of secondary materials to their smelters, either for recovery of lead or zinc, or as a treatment method that attracts a disposal fee. A trial load of CRTs from MRI was processed in 2002 at the Cockle Creek smelter near Newcastle (NSW). This plant is about to close, but the company is interested in taking leaded glass at the Port Pirie (South Australia) smelter. The business case for taking the glass is based on charging a disposal fee, as the lead has a relatively low value36 and the smelter does not need additional flux due to the nature of material currently being processed at Port Pirie. The largest energy cost in running the smelter is the melting and handling of slag through the furnace. The addition of the leaded glass will increase the amount of slag needing to be processed, and it therefore has an energy cost.

Pasminco has not processed any leaded glass at Port Pirie as yet, but after discussions with a similar plant in the US that processes whole CRTs, is confident that there will be no technical difficulties. Some work does need to be done on the design of a safe and efficient handling system for the material. Their preference is for separated glass, in pieces approximately 100mm x 100mm, delivered in small bottom-opening skips (around 1 m3). Pasminco is not willing to publicly disclose quoted prices for disposal of the glass. Figures mentioned by recyclers range from $500 - $800 per tonne.

HMR is in the process of sending leaded glass from the Sydney computer pilot to MIM's smelter in Mt Isa (Queensland). At the time of writing (July 2003) the material had not been processed. The company is confident that the material can be processed successfully, but the trial will determine any technical, handling and cost issues. Benefits to MIM are the value of the lead, and a saving in flux costs. The main concern is potential OH&S hazards associated with handling crushed glass. They would prefer the glass to be delivered in a crushed form consistent with their specifications for crushed quartz. It would then be blended with the quartz to avoid any variations in energy requirements. The cost of freight is being met by HMR.

6.6.2 Glass Sorting Technologies

Research has recently been undertaken for the US National Defense Center for Environmental Excellence (NDCEE) on alternative sorting technologies for CRT glass. The aim of the project was to develop a demonstration/validation line to produce furnace-ready cullet for closed-loop manufacture of CRTs. This required sorting of panel and funnel glasses to meet the CRT manufacturers' specifications. The manufacture of panel glass has 'zero tolerance' for contamination with leaded glass (less than 0.1% lead by weight)37. The sorting technologies that were tested included manual sorting, automated X-Ray fluorescence, automated optical sorting and liquid density. The last option, which used a sink-float method, was found to be the most promising overall. It used a liquid medium that has a density between that of the panel glass and the funnel glass - lithium heteropolytungstate (LST). The disadvantages of this system are the high cost of the LST (US$520/litre) and the high capital and development costs38.

6.6.3 Recycling of LCD Screens

The transition from CRT to flat panel display technologies for computer and TV screens will have implications for recycling. The newer technologies have advantages such as reduced size and weight and increased portability. While currently used mainly for laptop computers, their use in desktop computers and TVs is increasing. The most common flat panel display technology currently in use is LCDs.

The US EPA funded a LCA of CRTs and LCDs. LCDs were found to have lower environmental impacts in 18 of the 20 impact categories studied. LCDs still have small amounts of lead in the printed circuit boards, but in total CRTs have over 25 times more lead than LCDs. Mercury is contained in the fluorescent tubes used to provide the source of light in LCD's, but mercury is also emitted from some fuel combustion processes, such as coal fired power stations, that contribute to life cycle impacts of both CRTs and LCDs. The LCA study found that more mercury was emitted from the generation of power consumed by CRTs during manufacture and use than from the entire amount of mercury emissions from the LCD, including mercury from backlights and power generation. Liquid crystals are organic compounds, and while the study found very little data on their toxicology, it concluded that they did not appear to contribute significantly to any of the impact categories39.

While few flat screen products are currently entering the waste stream, the number will increase over the next few years. A company in Berlin, Vicor GmbH, has undertaken a pilot recycling project in which LCDs were manually separated. Liquid crystals were removed and destroyed catalytically and 70% of the glass was recovered40.

6.7 Economics of Reprocessing

According to reprocessors, recycling of older computers, burnt out CRTs, printers and photocopiers needs to be subsidised, as the value of the recovered materials is less than total costs. Other computer products pay for themselves through resale of systems, components or materials. A monitor is estimated to have a value of around $40 - $60/unit if it is not burnt or broken. Otherwise they have a negative value of around $12 - $25/unit excluding collection. This seems to be consistent with costs estimated overseas (see Table 6.3 and 6.4). Newer CPUs have a value of around $500/ tonne. Printers and scanners have almost no value because they do not contain a large volume of metals or components.

The high costs of disassembly and sorting are a major barrier to efficient processing. Technology exists to crush and sort materials such as ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals and plastics from electronic equipment, but glass needs to be removed beforehand.

Table 6.3: Cost or benefit of materials to recycler ($)
Secondary material
Value per tonne
$3 800
$2 180
CRT front glass (Visy/ fibreglass)
CRT glass (lead smelter)
-($500 - $800)
Sorted plastics
$0 - $150

Table 6.4: Estimated costs of recycling TVs and computer monitors
Per television
Per computer
Hannepin County, Minnesota41
MOEA pilot
Report by Californians Against Waste et al42  

6.8 Market Development Conclusions

For plastics, the major barrier appears to be the need for a cost efficient and effective sorting system for mixed polymers. Automatic sorting technologies exist in Europe and the US, and are being investigated by some players in Australia.

A secondary issue is that while there appears to be reasonable demand for many of the plastics in export markets (particularly China), it would be beneficial to build local markets, particularly for the ABS and HIPS streams, in order to diversify and strengthen the market. The most promising developments for market development support by State Government agencies are:

  1. Close the Loop and their new technology for shredding printer consumables, including plastics recovery, which could be extended in future to encompass plastics from other EEPs (see section 6.5.3);
  2. Polytech Resources and their new technology to process flame-retardant plastics into products, also using an automatic sorting process for polymers to control raw material streams (see section 6.5.1); and
  3. The international PROMISE project and its Australian component to develop new markets for engineering plastics (see section 5.5.1).

Export markets are also a valid outlet for recyclable plastics and should be supported. While low value markets exist in Asia through export agents, closed loop recycling opportunities for recycling back into new computers and TVs should be further investigated.

Smelters appear to be the only viable market in Australia for leaded glass, albeit at a cost. Visy Glass will continue to take front glass for reprocessing into fibreglass at no cost, and there does appear to be no limit to the amount of material that can be absorbed by this market. Both Pasminco and MIM claim to be interested in taking leaded glass, although MIM is yet to undertake its trial of material from the Sydney computer pilot. The question of whether or not CRTs should be separated into front and back glass, or reprocessed into a mixed glass product, will ultimately depend on economics of separation and policy questions about whether recovery as a glass product is preferred over treatment in lead smelters. The additional cost of separating the front and rear glass is likely to exceed the costs saved by sending only leaded glass to a smelter. However, the recycling of glass into fibreglass may be preferred for environmental reasons.