What Happens to Your Recycled Electronics?

You've just upgraded to the newest gadget, and recycled your older version. But what exactly happens to your once-beloved electronics when you send them off to be recycled?

Electronics recyclers can only survive by selling the component commodities like plastic, glass, and copper in bulk. The highest value perk comes in the form of printed circuit boards, where smidgens of copper, silver, gold, and platinum in the circuitry can be smelted off at different temperatures and refined. Here's what happens to everything else.

The plants for recycling tend to be huge-- for example, ECS Refining in California has a 260,000 square foot plant. Once your gadget has arrived, the recycling process begins when the gadgets are dismantled the quick way: smashing. The electronics are reduced to a jumble of slivers and fragments, and a series of magnets, shaking trays, and optical sorting technologies separate the remnants by the type of material.

Once refined, the components can be re-made into just about anything. Gold from the circuit board in your ancient desktop could theoretically make it into the jewelry you buy a few years from now; likewise, some of the plastics recovered in this process may be reborn as parts in new computers.

From a liability standpoint, however, recycling and repurposing aren’t all that some recyclers do. A large part of the labor at some recycling plants involves wiping or flashing every drive that comes their way. The method they use to wipe the drives is up to Department of Defense standards, and afterwards, the drives are smashed.

If you're selecting an e-Steward for recycling computers, make sure you find a group who's the real deal. Not all recyclers are created equal-- any profiteer can label themselves a “recycler,” and there's no guarantee they won’t dump your e-waste in a landfill if it’s convenient.

When selecting a recycler for your electronics, make sure you go with a group that does certified destruction. According to a 2009 EPA report, more than 80 percent of all e-waste still ends up in traditional landfills. When you recycle your computers, not only are you keeping precious resources in the U.S., you’re preventing potentially hazardous materials from being dumped in someone else’s backyard.

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