California's three-year-old electronics recycling program uses an approach no other legislature has copied, but James Mejia believes its virtues will become clearer as states seek to widen the scope of products covered.
Mejia is a longtime figure in California's scrap metal and electronics processing industries, and his advice helped shape that state's program, which requires buyers of new electronics with monitors to pay a recycling fee. Some of the money goes to the 528 California companies and agencies that collect the defunct equipment; the rest goes to the 63 physical recyclers to whom the collectors ship. Other legislatures have opted for an alternate strategy, requiring television and computer makers to pay for the eventual recycling of their products.
Mejia is above the fray in California for the moment, working as vice president of environmental affairs for Redemtech Inc., Columbus, Ohio, but from 2003 to 2006 he was chief operating officer at a Los Angeles electronics processor he helped launch. That company later became part of a Mississippi-based recycling chain.
"What other states fail to see is what California has built," Mejia said. "The e-waste collection infrastructure is impressive, especially considering that it was constructed in a relatively short period. California imposes e-waste processor standards and monitors them at a state level."
Requiring that recycling be paid for or carried out by manufacturers—the alternate approach adopted by Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington—will become increasingly complex if programs try to expand beyond display screens, Mejia said. The number of manufacturers subject to enforcement could become dizzying. "We're still in our infancy stage in regards to addressing the wide variety of e-waste categories. CRTs (cathode ray tubes) are only a small percentage of the e-waste spectrum," Mejia said.
When he was chief operating officer at Electronic Partners Corp. in Los Angeles, part of his responsibility was matching the output from the 3,000-horsepower e-waste treatment equipment to the needs of metal consumers.
"It was like a mechanical smelter. Instead of an ingot or a sow, you got a mechanical chop," Mejia recalled. "When you process circuit cards, the heavy elements, the coppers, the lead, metals with similar densities, end up in the same container. When you pull a sample, it's very close to a 123 alloy (a semi-red brass with tin, lead and zinc)." Sometimes the consumer wanted less lead than the 6 percent that typically emerged. "To lower it to 3-percent lead content, I added insulated (copper) wire to dilute the lead. It's a math trick, but it's no different from what a smelter does" by mixing additional metal with the original scrap.
Other output streams were aluminum chops with less than 1 percent copper and No. 2 ferrous busheling. "The e-waste process yields metal chops about a quarter inch (long)," he said. "If it's chopped too small, into powder, it's considered hazardous waste."
"After processing low-value electronics, the only fractions not sold were the fiberglass, ceramics and some insulation where different polymers were commingled," Mejia said. The lead content of cathode ray tubes was priced as an offset against fees. "At least 98.8 percent of the material (by weight) was marketable," Mejia said. The rest was classified as hazardous waste under California law and handled appropriately.
As flat-panel displays become more common and then get scrapped, recyclers will need methods to remove the mercury. "I'm doing R&D on it currently," Mejia said. "I haven't found the solution, but we're constantly working on it."
Mejia would like to see a regulatory system develop that discourages exports of electronic scrap and its derivatives, with processors disclosing how closely they live up to such a goal. Even if the foreign destination is a sophisticated smelter that can be trusted to minimize hazards, Mejia believes export should be a last resort. "For companies (discarding equipment) that have environmentally sensitive policies, export is not allowed. Keeping it in the U.S. is keeping jobs in the U.S., keeping our mills open and our smelters and our processing capability."
Ideally, even Quebec should be discouraged as a destination for e-scrap, he said. "It's not shipping to China, but it's going beyond our borders, putting the burden over to our neighbors."
California's processors of discarded electronics should be responsible for producing usable scrap from base metals, negating the option of leaving that chore for others to handle further downstream, Mejia said. "This would prevent (California's) Senate Bill 20 program from becoming a modified e-waste export program," he said.
California pays physical recyclers 48 cents a pound for processing eligible discards, with a guideline saying local collectors should receive 20 cents of that. "The split was established as 28 cents recycler/20 cents collector, and then the game started to be played. It eventually ended up in a 50-50 split in my business," Mejia said, but he isn't particularly bothered by this because processors also get sales revenue for what they're doing.
"A typical monitor, after glass treatment costs and using current commodity pricing, yields approximately 8.75 cents per pound before labor," Mejia said. Subtract labor costs of 0.1 cent per pound, and the California processor still gets a significant supplement to the money from the state program.