Corporate stewardship and responsibility toward the
environment is becoming an ever-more-important part of the
metals culture-a fact of life driven by increasingly strict
state, regional and national regulations. So too with indium
recovery from end-of-life products, which now stands as a key
initiative for many electronics companies as they seek to
There's a definite incentive for end-of-life liquid
crystal display (LCD) recycling as companies prepare for a wave
of e-cycling laws expected to emerge in the coming years,
according to the National Center for Electronics Recycling
(NCER) in Parkersburg, W.Va. E-cycling laws will cover 50
percent of the U.S. population by 2011, the group said.
The number of LCDs reaching recyclers is almost
non-existent currently, according to David Thompson, president
of Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Co. LLC (MRM),
a Washington-based recycling management firm that has been
overseeing and organizing a national infrastructure e-cycling
program through a joint partnership with flat-panel TV
manufacturers like Panasonic Corp., Sharp Corp. and Toshiba
"LCD television recycling is going to be a
requirement for us in the future," Thompson said, noting that
the MRM partnership has been able to reduce overhead costs and
maximize the cost effectiveness that comes with larger volumes
of incoming products.
Sharp alone has had internal e-cycling programs
since 1992. Now, the company is exploring multiple recycling
mechanisms, such as public storage sheds for recyclable goods,
and said it's ready to handle large volumes of LCDs when they
start pouring in.
Although MRM has set up 280 drop-off points for
products around the country, "I hardly see any LCD televisions
coming in," Thompson said. One of the most obvious reasons is
that LCDs have become a popular household item only in recent
years, and with a lifespan of up to 30 years it will take some
time for products to be discarded.
The same holds true in the solar semiconductor
industry, where recyclers aren't looking into end-of-life
copper, indium, gallium, (di)selenide (CIGS) solar panel
recycling because the products are fairly new. It's also
unlikely that the CIGS solar industry will use recycled indium,
currently playing only a small role in the solar market. The
best way to ensure access to a steady supply of indium is via
long-term contracts, much like LCD fabricators do today.
"We have contracts with suppliers who are confident
that indium supply is unlikely to be an issue for CIGS for the
foreseeable future," said Kelly Truman, vice president of
marketing, sales and business development at Fremont,
Calif.-based solar systems manufacturer Solyndra Inc. "Some
reasons are the declining growth rate of flat-panel display
manufacturing, increased recycling by the flat-panel industry
and new sources coming online."
However, the cell phone market, which has been
around for years, has a more developed recycling program. Most
cell phones also have LCDs. Dave Conrad, head of Nokia Corp.'s
North American environmental activities, has already seen 150
tons of cell phones come in for recycling at company-backed
For Conrad, finding a feasible way to extract
various metals from cell phones isn't only necessary but
logical. He estimates there are currently 700 million unwanted
cell phones containing metals that could be recycled at a much
lower cost than mining and refining from primary sources.
Cell phones are a valuable resource for metals like
indium, Conrad said, adding that he sees it as part of his job
to ensure that such metals don't get wasted.
However, indium prices would need to rise to
thousands of dollars per kilogram to warrant the capital
investment needed to retrieve the small quantities contained in
LCDs. Retrieving indium requires dismantling the LCD screen,
removing the liquid crystal material, etching the metallization
that is put on the glass with acids and refining those acids to
recover indium, chromium, aluminum, molybdenum and silicon-all
relatively tiny amounts compared with the overall weight of an
LCD TV panel.
Right now, indium often just shows up as a
contaminant in other piles of metals that recyclers are sorting
out, according to Frank Marella, senior manager of corporate
environmental affairs at Sharp Electronics Corp.
NCER executive director Jason Linnell agreed.
"Right now, those are some of the more difficult items that
they have to segregate and it slows down the whole process," he
said. Currently, once electronics products are shredded or hand
dissembled, they are gutted for metals that are then sorted by
type, typically ferrous and nonferrous. Shredders probably
don't have the ability right now to segregate specialty metals,
he said, noting that most companies just focus on one or two of
the more valuable materials and disregard the rest.
Nevertheless, Marella believes there could be a
market for the metals in LCD TV monitors once they start
hitting the waste stream, with the caveat that the needs of the
recycling markets and manufacturing industries might have
changed by then.
Still, even when LCD recycling does take off, it's
unlikely that recycled materials will be reused by the original
manufacturer. "Metals are kind of infinitely recyclable and
certainly they can be used for the most part in any market that
needs those metals," Marella said. "(This) makes products that
use a lot of metals a valuable commodity, and not even so much
a lot of metal, but where metal is a decent size