Buddy Graham wants to make his little piece of West Virginia into a Silicon Valley for electronics recycling.
Graham, president of the Polymer Alliance Zone in Ripley, W.Va., is buying 148 acres and a vacant, 312,000-square-foot building so PAZ can create the first industrial park for recycling electronics. He envisions it as a place where recyclers can locate alongside companies using recycled resin to manufacture products, and they can all benefit from nearby research and development operations.
PAZ, a plastics-oriented economic development agency, also is trying to develop an online trading system for recycled resins, and it has helped to fund a Tufts University project that is developing standards to make it easier to recycle plastics from electronics.
Graham admits it is an unorthodox role for the economic development agency, which formed in 1996 to promote the industry in three counties that are heavy with plastics manufacturing.
Rather than just trying to bring in plastic processors, PAZ has latched on to the idea of being a catalyst in an area where it sees real need. It is doing that with $3.5 million in federal funds - some of it secured through a special congressional appropriation - and an anticipated $5 million in state funds and $15 million in private funding.
Right now, there is not much infrastructure in the United States to collect the mountain of computers and other electronics thrown out. But Graham thinks that could change.
A coalition of major electronics manufacturers, governments and environmental groups in the United States, called the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative, in March tentatively agreed to support fees to facilitate recycling, and support any related federal legislation. The European Union and Japan are pursuing more aggressive plans, and shareholders at several electronics manufacturers are pressing the industry to take action.
So far, Graham has not brought any electronics recyclers to his corner of West Virginia, but he said he hopes to announce the first company within 60 days.
``There is absolutely a need for this,'' Graham said. ``When you look at what is going on around the world, we haven't seen anyone who has combined the plastics and glass and metals in recycling, as far as electronics.''
The group sees an opportunity because ``as we looked at the picture of end-of-life electronics equipment, everybody points to the plastics as the issue,'' said Doug Ritchie, president of SDR Plastics Inc. in Ravenswood, W.Va., and chairman of PAZ's industry steering committee.
Like PAZ's plans, though, much of recycling plastics from electronics remains a work in progress.
Some companies are investing in it. Flextronics International Ltd., for example, recently invested in MBA Polymers Inc., a state-of-the-art recycler of plastics from durable goods. Flextronics, one of the world's largest contract manufacturers and injection molders, wants to help MBA expand, he said.
``We're not waiting for legislation in the U.S.,'' said Jim Sacherman, chief marketing officer at Flextronics in San Jose, Calif. ``We are seeing more interest in our customers in recycled content.''
But others are taking a more cautious approach. Electronics recycler Butler-MacDonald Inc. in Indianapolis, for example, is beefing up its plastics-recycling capabilities but remains wary of the computer marketplace.
``We are not moving into processing computer electronics,'' said Ray Pomerleau, Butler-MacDonald plastics director.
Companies have approached the firm to do more with computers, but ``we like to deal with feed streams that are predictable.''
``Whenever you deal with computers, you have materials coming in from every manufacturer under the sun,'' Pomerleau said.
He said certain problems make it difficult to recycle economically, such as the variety of resins used, many of which have similar densities but are incompatible with each other for recycling, and the presence of interior shielding. Recyclers also talk about problems getting consistent volumes of electronics to process and undeveloped markets for the recycled resin.
He praised the NEPSI process, but said the industry may need to help fund the recycling of plastics.
``You can't count on small manufacturers to foot all of the upfront costs,'' he said.
For one plastics recycler that focuses on electronics, the problem is not being able to collect enough material.
Mike Biddle, president and chief executive officer of MBA in Richmond, Calif., said his company can recycle plastics economically on a large scale. But North America does not have the collection and processing infrastructure to match Japan and Europe.
``In North America we need more sourcing of material,'' Biddle said. ``It is a chicken-and-egg thing. A big computer manufacturer doesn't want to go into this big product development unless they know there are sources of material.''
While there are many unknowns, quiet work also is happening behind the scenes.
The Environmental Protection Agency's Chicago office is spearheading a trial to collect more recycled resin for electronics markets, and the Gordon Institute at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., runs a forum giving manufacturers and others a chance to resolve some of the more technical challenges.
The institute, for example, has developed a rating system for identifying and communicating what type of recycled resin a company has. Too often buyers and sellers do not have a common language to describe what each has.
``A lot of people who generate the stuff don't know what they have,'' said Patty Dillon, project manager for the Stakeholder Dialogues on Recycling Engineering Thermoplastics from Used Electronics Equipment. ``Rather than a very generic term like saying, `I have electronic plastics,' you would be better able to communicate with someone trying to buy and sell. ... It improves the economics.''
The Gordon program also is starting to work with Underwriters Laboratories Inc. in Northbrook, Ill., to develop a new test method for recycled resins. The current tests used to validate virgin materials do not work as well with recycled material, even if the recycled material has the same overall performance, Dillon said.
``Certainly if more material were available with the UL certificate, it would be less costly for incorporating recycled content in the product,'' Dillon said. ``It will definitely broaden the market for recycled material, and not just in electronics products.''
Molders who work in electronics markets said it is tough to tell how the NEPSI push will affect them.
Bruce Ginder, president of Mack Design Inc. in West Henrietta, N.Y., said the electronics manufacturing industry is talking more about recycling, but it is not uppermost in conversations between the electronics industry and molders.
``Once they start to dive into these issues, they start to back away because they realize there are a lot more issues they have to deal with than meets the eye,'' Ginder said.
For example, there are sometimes inconsistencies in batches of recycled resin because it is harder to trace the source of materials, Ginder said. European countries are more demanding about flame retardants than is the United States, which complicates both design and recycling, he said.
Flextronics' investment in MBA is pushed more by European and Japanese regulations than by anything happening in the United States, Sacherman said. He said MBA's technology lessens the importance of designing for product take-back, because it makes recycling easier.
In the United States, the NEPSI process will prove beneficial to plastics recycling because it will, over time, increase the amount of materials available and spur market development, according to Dillon. For electronics recycling, the challenges are getting adequate supply and being able to process it cost effectively, she said.
Right now, one problem is that while communities complain that they do not have anywhere to take plastics collected from electronics, manufacturers complain that they cannot source enough recycled material, according to EPA program analyst Gordon Hui.
``That is still the big picture out there - trying to develop a high-value use for it ... that you can resell on the market, especially when resin prices are down,'' said Graham.