State College company closes the loop on electronics recycling
Dennis Betts watched as workers load about 2,000 pounds of aluminum from old televisions onto a shipping trailer. Betts is the Operations Manager at eLoop, an electronics recycling and disassembly center in the former Corning Factory in State College.
Walking through eLoop is almost like visiting a museum of technology advances from 70’s televisions with wooden frames to flat screen TVs, commercial copy machines, and business telephones.
“The majority based here is from collections, like your local collection facility refuse center. We have points all over the state that way," Betts said. "And we also have corporate businesses we do deal with as well.”
At eLoop, experienced technicians do most of the teardown of the electronics manually with drills and hand tools. But some electronics recycling facilities around the world have automated more of this disassembly process.
Flat screen TVs are a common teardown for eLoop employee Zachary Jeffries and he said tearing them down and sorting them is a quick process.
“About two and a half to three minutes,” Jeffries said.
Once workers finish disassembling and sorting electronics into their separate materials, like glass, plastics, and metals, they are often compressed and loaded onto pallets. Betts said the materials are then shipped to other specialty recycling facilities that can continue the recycling process.
“Everybody thinks recycling everything’s just easy, but there are a lot of components we have to find a vendor to take," Betts said. "Your margins are very difficult. So it’s overcoming, finding the correct vendors with the correct downstreams that are processing this correctly…not ending up in a landfill. Not ending up somewhere it shouldn’t be. It's actually being processed correctly is the most challenging.”
Lead, mercury, and other potentially toxic materials in electronics can make safe recycling challenging and costly. Betts gestured to workers taking apart a flat-screen TV. The bulbs inside contain mercury.
“The hardest part is the bulb collection. And then collecting them and keeping them nice and neat in the collection bin is the most difficult part. And the mercury exposures, that is the most difficult. Ensuring manually we’re not breaking them,” Betts said.
eLoop is a certified “e-Stewards” facility, which means they make sure recycling is completed safely, both at their facility and at all the businesses they work with in their recycling network. Betts said recycling facilities without these types of credentials cannot guarantee their electronics are being recycled safely.
“Every vendor we use has to have a downstream. The downstream would be from when we send it to them, where it goes, to all the way to end of life. So whether it be a smelter or a reuse purpose. Some standard recyclers will collect it, but they don’t follow the same standards that we have,” Betts said.
E-Stewards facilities also adhere to strict data privacy standards to ensure sensitive information is protected behind lock and key, erased, and hard-drives are shredded by request. As more consumer electronics contain potentially sensitive information, data protection is an important piece of the future of e-waste recycling.
eLoop operates another facility in Export, PA that focuses on finding a second life for some electronics like cell phones through refurbishing. Refurbishing electronics is usually the most environmentally friendly option because it minimizes the need for new raw materials and keeps these items out of the recycling and waste streams longer.
When asked what’s hardest to recycle, Betts motioned to a pallet of TV tubes from the old box-style TVs.
“CRT Television glass, the old tubes that are in the TVs because of the lead content,” Betts said.
The lead in the tubes makes it difficult for Betts to find a vendor to take them for further recycling. Some of the tubes might have been made right here in the Corning factory decades ago.