More than 3.1 billion pounds of plastics go into computers and other electronic products each year, but the material remains a ``problem child'' when it comes to recycling.
In contrast to scrap metals, integrated circuits and precious metals, very little of the plastics in electronics are recycled right now for a host of technical and economic reasons. But plastics industry officials say they are drawing much closer to solving some technical hurdles, and an industry-funded pilot project in California recently went commercial on a limited scale.
``I think we're real close,'' said Tony Kingsbury, environmental business development manager at Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich., and a member of the American Plastics Council's durables recycling effort. ``It will take a while for the markets to evolve. At the same time, technology like automated sorting to a large extent is getting there.''
The newly commercialized effort, at MBA Polymers Inc. in Richmond, Calif., can grind up computers and sort plastics at speeds that begin to make it commercially viable.
The engineering plastics used are inherently valuable, but the firm needs until the end of the year to figure out what products, such as computers or automotive parts, it can sort in a commercially viable way, President Michael Biddle said. MBA is funded by private money, Washington-based APC and government grants.
But some electronics manufacturers say they have not seen enough progress. For example, Panasonic in March said it was switching from plastic to magnesium for the housings of some portable stereos and other products because of recycling concerns.
Hewlett-Packard Co. tried to put recycled plastics into its deskjet printer housings two years ago but never could find enough material and had problems matching the color of recycled and virgin resins, said Renee St. Denis, the end-of-life process manager for Hewlett-Packard in the United States. The company now is focusing on the use of recycled material in internal components, where color matching is not important, she said. HP serves on an APC durables recycling committee.
The role of plastics manufacturers in recycling is not well-defined and that will make it more difficult to recycle plastics, St. Denis said.
``There doesn't seem to be a lot of interest or ability to deliver on it,'' she said. ``We haven't seen a lot of action.''
She spoke at a recycling forum in April sponsored by the National Safety Council. Washington-based NSC is using an Environmental Protection Agency grant to research electronics recycling.
Panasonic has found the plastics industry supportive, though the infrastructure and economics for recycling computers are not there yet, said Mark Sharp, assistant general manager for the Washington environmental office of Panasonic's parent, Matsushita Electronic Corp. of America.
The company made the switch in housings material in part because of a Japanese home-appliance recycling law that takes effect in 2001. A new Japanese plant is working on magnesium molding applications for larger products, a company news release said.
A dozen major computer and electronics manufacturers, including Panasonic, have held informal meetings on boosting plastics recycling by sharing information or pooling their materials collected, said Mark Lennon, a New Hampshire consultant who is coordinating the effort. One study estimates that electronics disposal problems will worsen because by 2005, one computer will be obsolete for every new one produced.
Recyclers say design of the electronics equipment and the variety of resins used for the same equipment make it harder to recycle.
Digital Equipment Corp.'s reprocessing facility in Contoocook, N.H., is able to recycle only about 10-15 percent of the plastics in the equipment it processes, said Tom Coots, Digital's asset recovery manager.
``We, like many of the other [original equipment manufacturers], are not having tremendous success with it,'' he said.
The company separates its plastic by hand, and is able to sell about 100,000 pounds of Noryl polyphenylene oxide and ABS to brokers each year, he said. The 240,000-square-foot plant is the primary reseller and recycler of Digital equipment in the United States, with most of the equipment being resold.
Older equipment is very difficult to recycle because it has coatings and flame retardants that lower its value, Coots said. While newer equipment is designed better for recyclability, the problem is recovering it cheaply enough, compared with the price of virgin resin, he said.
``The reality is that oil is cheap and new resin is cheap,'' Coots said. ``Is it really worth it when they can buy virgin so cheaply?''
But Biddle said the new equipment being developed at MBA can produce recycled resin at 30-80 percent of the cost of virgin. Electronics probably have three different kinds of resin — high-impact polystyrene, ABS and polycarbonate/ABS.
The barriers to recycling are that the variety of plastics used are relatively incompatible with each other, they frequently are coated and decorated, and metals and other materials often are attached to the plastic, Biddle said.
``Realistically, we don't believe there will ever be a sufficient narrowing [of the number of resins used] that we will not need sophisticated separation systems,'' he said.
Matching color remains the biggest hurdle, but the growth of coinjection molding should give ``a lot of hope'' by putting the recycled material inside the virgin and eliminating color-matching problems, Biddle said. But other industry officials said coinjection molding remains too expensive for many electronics manufacturers.
Several companies interviewed said they are reducing the variety of resins they use. IBM, for instance, now uses generic resin types for 90 percent of its plastics.
Dow's Kingsbury said some companies are ``oblivious'' to the issue of design. Global manufacturers, however, pay close attention to improving design for recyclability, in part because laws in Europe and Japan are requiring them to take more responsibility for product disposal.
Many electronics recyclers today focus on telephones, which are made mostly of ABS. But those recyclers do not work much on other products, said Stewart Wallin, president of Renewal Plastics and Recycling Inc. in La Fayette, Ga. RPR has been recycling for 15 years.
``I don't recycle any other communications equipment due to the fact that it is unprofitable,'' Wallin said. ``The same product or the same panel could be made out of styrene one month and another resin another month. By the human eye, how do you tell them apart?''
Most existing recycling operations are geared toward retrieving metals or components such as circuit boards, and the plastics collected often are contaminated with metals and are exported to the Far East, where it is economical to sort them by hand, recyclers said.
But recycling in the United States could get a boost from states pushing for landfill bans on cathode ray tubes inside televisions, Kingsbury said. That will create another stream of plastics, he said.
California also wants to focus more on plastics recycling in durable goods, according to officials with the California Integrated Waste Management Board.
The American Plastics Council is dedicating money to market-development research for durables recycling, but officials declined to say how much. APC wants to focus on sorting, market development and getting information on amounts currently recycled, said Andrea Wood, deputy director of durables for Washington-based APC.