At an electronics recycling plant in Singapore's Tuas industrial zone, tons of electronic wastes are fed to the facility for the recovery of materials like steel, copper, plastic, and also silver and gold.
The concentration of some precious metals in the electronic wastes is higher than ore found in mines, said Fons Krist, executive director for sales and marketing at Cimelia Resource Recovery Pte Ltd, which operates the plant.
Krist said the company typically expects about 150 grams of gold to be recovered from a ton of printed circuit boards -- mostly from old computers, hard drives and other equipment.
"It is an interesting industry and it is still a growing industry, with electronic scrap being the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world," he said in an interview with Xinhua ahead of the inaugural CleanEnviro Summit Singapore, which gathers industry players from the region and beyond on July 1-5.
"Electronic recycling is dubbed urban mining. It is kind of silly not to recycle and re-use it," Krist said. "But it has to be done properly."
Built on a land of about 200,000 square feet, the plant of Cimelia is one of the largest electronic waste management and precious metal recovery plant in Singapore. Krist, who has been working in the industry for more than 10 years, said there are some other firms in the business but few others go so far as to be able to recover physical precious metals like gold, silver, platinum and paladium.
Cimelia also participated in the ongoing CleanEnviro Summit Singapore, which is held concurrently with the Singapore International Water Week and the World Cities Summit.
The management and recovery of waste, as urbanization accelerates around the world, is creating unprecedented challenges, but it also creates opportunities as solutions that had not been possible in the past constantly emerge, said Matthew Gubb, director of the International Environmental Technology Center, the United Nations Environment Program, at a panel discussion at the CleanEnviro Summit Singapore.
About 80 percent of the world's population will live in cities by 2050, up from the current 50 percent, said Jerome Le Conte, chief executive officer of France-based Veolia Environmental Services.
Veolia is one of the leading industry players in Singapore, offering solid waste collection and industrial services and operating a material recovery facility and some hazardous waste treatment facilities. The company provides lithium battery recycling that meets regulatory requirements, which is of great potential given the increasing popularity of electric cars, said Le Conte.
Dowa Eco-System, a Japan-based company that has waste management and recycling operations across Asia, also operates a plant in Singapore to recover precious and nonferrous metals.
SAFE, ENVIRONMENTAL PLANT
Cimelia's plant has received ISO 9001, 14001 and OHSAS 18001 certifications. One of its safety features is that it has an online monitoring system for the level of dangerous gases in the plant, where workers are required to wear masks when operating in an environment that involves poisonous chemicals.
For the recovery of precious metals, Cimelia first uses crushers to reduce the sizes of the printed circuit boards and segregates the different parts to prepare them for recovery process.
The precious metal contained in the boards is then dissolved in solutions, a process that often involves the use of chemicals such as acids or cyanide. This is also the process that differentiates a licensed plant like Cimelia from certain plants in places where the licensing system is not in place.
The waste collectors and recyclers have to be licensed in Singapore. The National Environment Agency has overall responsibility for the planning, development and management of solid waste disposal facilities and operations, including the licensing and regulation of solid waste collection and enforcement of illegal dumping.
"We have to have the capability, including the environmental safety aspects in place in order to become a certified electronics recycler," Krist said.
The company not only puts in place measures to safeguard workers' safety but also the environment with proper waste water and chemical treatment discharge processes. For the processing of "white goods" such as refrigerators, it also put in place measures to capture the harmful CFCs and make sure they are handled properly.
"We have our water discharge monitored by the (Singapore's water agency) PUB. So if it is above the limit, it will be closed down," Krist said. "We have no emission."
Most of the raw materials at Cimelia had not come from the households, as the electronic products retired in Singapore may often have a life in the surrounding markets and elsewhere. They come from corporate clients who want their electronic waste disposed of safely and environmentally, or securely.
The city state does not make it compulsory to separate the electronic wastes from other types of solid wastes when they are put in the bins.
Unlike in Europe, Japan and the United States where companies pay to have their "end of life" equipment recycled properly, Cimelia can't always charge a fee for the services offered. It has to rely on recovering the value form the materials recovered.
Industry players like Dowa also put their eyes on China, where authorities have announced that the producer or importer will be charged a recycling fee for each set of home appliances such as televisions, washing machines, refrigerators and air-conditioners as well as personal computers starting from July 1.
China is rapidly becoming one of the largest generators of electronic wastes. In addition, a substantial part of the electronic wastes from other parts of the world are now dismantled in places like China, India and some parts of Africa where the labour cost is low.
The country has been making efforts to regulate the electronic waste recycling industry and promote the growth of environmentally compliant recyclers, but challenges remain. Reports of waters polluted in Guiyu, a town in China's southern coastal province of Guangdong, had made headlines in the past.
Krist said the problem with the dismantling of electronic products in China often comes from the lack of proper procedures or due consideration for the environment. Some simple plants use the chemicals to dissolve the precious metals from the boards but discard the rest and leave the used chemicals untreated. Workers at certain plants simply heat the electronic components over open fire to remove the valuable parts.
Kenichi Sasaki, president of Dowa Eco-System, said the move by the Chinese authorities will be good for the growth of "good firms " in the electronic waste management industry.
It is important for the "good firms" to compete on the same level playing field against the informal plants, Krist said.
"The biggest problem for us is to ensure the supply of materials. If we have to compete with those who are doing it illegally, it won't be good," he said.
When California implemented the law for a CRT (cathode ray tube) Recycling Fee back in 2004, a huge boom was seen in companies entering into the electronics recycling arena and some of the more prominent electronics recyclers have emerged from there, he added.
Krist said it is a misconception, despite improvements in recent years, to see all the electronic wastes as hazardous.
"There is a huge misperception, in the sense of how toxic electronic waste is. Let's face it if a computer is no longer working, the moment it moves from the table to the floor, it becomes hazardous," he said. "How is that possible? Even in the manual dismantle process, there is still nothing hazardous about it. Don't get me wrong. There are certain hazardous materials in electronic waste, but they only become an issue when you start to process or recycle these materials -- if the recycling or recovery is not done correctly and without the proper health and safety as well as environmental safety measure in place."
According to Krist, if labour cost allows it, the best way to start recycling electronic waste is to do it manually which gives the cleanest separation of all the material, metal, plastic and printed circuit boards. After the initial separation the material can go for their respective recycling process.
In places like Europe everything goes into one big crusher and, as a result, a lot of technology has to be employed to separate out the materials again after crushing. Mixed plastics are one of the main problems as few technologies can separate out a mixture of different types of plastics. Enviro Hub, the holding company of Cimelia, has a solution that converts used mixed plastics back into fuel.
In Europe, despite the WEEE legislation (Waste Electric Electronic Equipment), an Extended Producer Responsibility system, there is a lot of leakage from the system due to valuable part disappearing out of the system. A similar example of this in Singapore are the refrigerators that often arrive at the Cimelia plant with their compressors removed by those who had not been licensed for doing this.
"We have the only plant in Singapore that is equipped to collects the harmful CFCs and ensures that it is handled and disposed of properly," he said.