One recent Saturday, hundreds of people said unemotional goodbyes to once-glorious desktop computers, hundred-pound printers and HD TVs that had fallen from grace, piling the devices into an Island of Misfit Toys.
By mid-afternoon, the shrink-wrapped stacks tallied 200 televisions and monitors and 180 computers, all westward bound to meet their re-maker, a recycling un-factory that can obliterate 20 tons of basement-dwelling junk in an hour.
“We make little things out of big things,” explained Joe Clayton, co-owner of Synergy Recycling, the company that takes on more than three million pounds of Wake County’s electronic waste each year. In every garage and supply closet he sees piles of commodities: glass, plastic, precious metals.
Electronic is the new frontier of recycling. Consumers are itching to unleash waves of recyclable resources, as shown by the above-capacity crowds at Wake County’s e-waste recycling events.
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In Cary, about 1400 families unloaded their garages and cellars into the hands of recycling companies. They lined up along the block to give their broken or outdated stuff to Synergy, or hazardous wastes to another company.
“What a big deal this is, to be able to clean out your garage,” said Carol Piper, who unloaded keyboards, a printer, a monitor and more than a half-dozen cell phones. “They’ve been in my house forever.”
The capacity crowd at the May 19 recycling event pointed to an obvious fact: We’ve got a lot of stuff in our basements. Nationwide, a backlog of about nine billion pounds was ready to recycle in 2010, and Americans bought nine billion pounds more that year, the federal government estimated.
Breaking it down
The electronics recycling industry has practically had to invent itself to catch up. Synergy doubled its profits again and again in the last decade, and now employs 150 people to run a patented process in a 135,000 square-foot building in Madison, N.C..
First, Synergy’s crews of former textile and tobacco workers unscrew your PC’s panels, or take a chisel and hammer to your MacBook Pro, which, workers say, is a real pain to recycle. Then they send the gutted devices down a conveyor belt toward the Godzilla of shredders, which chews them into two-inch pieces.
Next, magnets draw iron from the stream of shredded devices, and electric Foucault currents push aluminum out of the mix. Finally, a Synergy-patented system of thousands of jet nozzles uses “blades” of air, guided by camera and sensor systems, to push the two-inch pieces of debris into piles of copper, circuit boards and plastic to be sold to other contractors.
At full speed, the system would take about a week to sort a year’s worth of Wake County’s recycled computers. The county sends all the electronics waste it collects, about 1,500 tons per year, to Synergy.
Contrary to the recycling industry’s overall growth, the county has seen little increase in its electronics waste output, according to Lowell Shaw, the county’s recycling coordinator. Even a state law that banned computers from landfills in 2011 didn’t send many more local devices to recyclers.
“We thought we’d get a big spike,” Shaw said. Instead, “it has been continually steady.”
The discrepancy between increasing amounts of recyclables and flat rates of recycling could mean that locals don’t know where to take their computers. A notion reinforced by the Cary residents queuing up for a 20-minute wait to dispose of their computers, when the town offers free curbside computer recycling every day.