Friday, 7 November 2014

The science behind recycling: Turning scrap into gold: Part 2

The recycling compound at DESCO
DESCO, one of the largest e-waste recycling company of South Africa boasts of a huge facility where hundreds of workers are engaged in recycling electronic waste. Behind their office premises, a vast cemented compound, the size of two football fields, stand, surrounded by a tall electronic fence and a huge iron gate.

Thousands and thousands of white bags are lined up on one side of the compound filled with discarded circuit boards from various electronic equipments like personal computers, laptops, workstations, refrigerators etc. Another side of the compound is filled with hundreds of ATM machines that have stopped working and have arrived at the facility to be recycled or repaired.

There are approximately 120 people wearing different colored coded safety vests working on the various segments of the compound.

Bags of circuit boards to be exported
Says John van Coller, the corporate sales executive of the company, pointing to the white bags: "All these bags are packed with circuit boards of high grade value. They are to be exported to Brussels. The companies there shall extract the gold, copper and aluminum from these boards and then send them to various electronic equipment manufacturers."

Each week DESCO ships about 20 tons of circuit boards to different countries abroad such as Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark etc. Most European countries according to van Coller have s
ophisticated mechanism to extract precious metals from the boards. Unfortunately, no recycler in South Africa matches the technology available in these countries to extract the metals.

Bags of SASSA cards from the Eastern Cape Government
There are two main types of extraction process. The first is shredding, where manual labour is involved in extracting the metals like gold, copper, aluminum, platinum etc. It is cost effective and the main form of metal extraction process used by recyclers in South Africa. The other is calcining or pelting where machines are used to extract the metals.

However, both the processes are at an infant stage in the country. Due to lack of awareness and general disregard to e-waste recycling, various e-waste recyclers adopted these methods of extraction rather late as compared to some African nations such as Ghana and Nigeria. It was only in 2011-2012 that DESCO along with E-WASA, Department of Environmental Affairs and other e-waste recyclers organized intensive training camps in the country to train recyclers in the different metal extraction processes.

The machine for calcining/pelting of circuit boards
According to Malcolm Whitehouse, manager of the computer refurbishing centre, exporting circuit boards to foreign countries is an expensive method. The companies abroad buy the circuit boards from South African recyclers by weight. Each bag costs about R 200. About 25-30 bags of circuit boards get exported each week. The shipping and transportation costs are all borne by the European companies that buy the goods. However, after extraction the cost at which these companies sell the extracted metals is almost five times, of what they initially invest.

recently entered into an agreement with the Eastern Cape provincial government to recycle discarded SASSA cards and other government identity cards.

According to van Coller: "These cards should be considered electronic waste because of the magnetic strip and the electronic chip that is embedded in the cards. However, mostly these are recycled by plastic recyclers and the strip and chip are both thrown away by them which end up in the landfills."

DESCO plans to enter into similar agreements next year with all the eight provincial governments to recycle SASSA cards and similar government identity cards.
DESCO working 'shredding' from circuit boards

Investing in e-waste recycling can yield rich returns. According to Whitehouse, the gold yielded by one kilogram of circuit boards can equal the gold extracted from one ton of earth. However, it takes almost 2000 circuit boards to make up the one kilogram.

Explains van Coller: ‘If this awareness is generated; of how valuable e-waste is to the nation’s economy then the need to recycle them will become a priority.’

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