On October 31 I toured the Noranda Recycling Inc. plant in Brampton, Ontario. The plant is affiliated with three others in the United States.
Noranda got its start in metals recycling when it processed copper shell casings back in World War Two. It has merged with Falconbridge, which is in the process of being acquired by Inco, although Noranda Recycling will keep its name.
Unlike the other plants that were founded with strategic partner Hewlett-Packard, the Brampton plant started in 2003 with no partner. The plant offers what it bills as “100 per cent electronics waste recycling.” Nothing from the plant is exported and or landfilled. (The only material not recycled is polypropylene foam.)
The facility is integrated with the parent company’s smelter in Rouyn, Quebec, which was re-invented after the mine there closed in 1976, stranding a billion-dollar asset and a thousand workers. The smelter now processes a combination of baseload concentrates and up to 20 per cent recyclables from such diverse sources as copper tubing and wiring, automotive waste, platinum catalysts used in the petrochemical industry, photographic processing materials and used electronics equipment (e-waste).
The 82,000 square-foot industrial facility can process 10,000 pounds per hour. Running flat out, the plant could handle 35 million pounds of material annually. The company charges a recycling fee of between 30 and 45 cents (Canadian) per pound, depending on hazards in the material, volume, etc. The recycling fee is required because the output material streams are commercially a break-even proposition if handled in an environmentally sound manner, and plant costs are on top of that.
About 60 different customers supply the plant, including some government clients, some Fortune 500-type firms, and many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). When I visited the plant, brand-name equipment was visible, including a large number of photocopiers and some kitchen appliances that, rather incredibly, can be shredded whole. The strangest thing was a large vending machine queued for shredding.
My tour guide, Director, End of Life Electronics Cindy Thomas Coutts, explained that the fully permitted waste processing facility emphasizes “downstream accountability” or what is sometimes called “cradle-to-grave” responsibility. Unlike most other e-waste plants, she says, everything sent offsite is tracked via special software and documentation, and the process is independently audited.
“In 2004, the federal government conducted an electronics recycling vendor qualification pilot and Noranda was the only company that met the qualification,” she says.
The plant emphasizes environmental and workplace healthy and safety. Workers receive 35 training modules over two weeks. Even temps get two hours of basic training.
To avoid mercury releases fluorescent bulbs are removed from such devices as old laptop computers, even though 27 screws may have to be undone. The plant takes special care to prevent shredder dust entering the plant air. Beryllium, which is alloyed with copper to give “springiness” to such things as connectors (and thereby extend their life) is a respiratory hazard. The plant removes fine particulate matter from the air to 20 times below regulatory standards.
In addition to environmental health and safety, Noranda Recycling also emphasizes intellectual property protection to clients. Downloadable data is destroyed, and this is videotaped for clients.
Rather than arriving in bulk (which presents cracking hazards), materials arrive on skids and gaylords. Each shipment is weighed and bar-coded and the equipment moves through a manual “hazards triage” area where such things as fluorescent tubes, batteries, toners and inks are removed. Leaded cathode ray tubes are sent to Falconbridge’s lead smelter.
The now hazard-free material is then conveyed through an array of three different shredders that reduce it five-centimeter dimensions. Vibrating screens, magnets and eddy current equipment separate most of the metals from plastic, and further sorts the metals into bins. About five to eight per cent is copper or precious metal that goes to the Quebec smelter. Ferrous metal (40 per cent) is shipped to a Whitby steel plant that turns it into rebar. About six per cent of the stream is aluminum, and about a third is a mixture of copper and plastic that’s also smelted in the Quebec plant (where the plastic adds BTU value).
The plant also features a fluidized sand bed, which offers more separation, and a baghouse system that collects dust. (This also goes to Quebec because it contains recoverable metals.)
To my mind, the Noranda Recycling plant represents a very high standard of e-waste processing. The government could lead by example with green procurement. Where does e-waste from its Computers-for-Schools program go, I wonder? Where does e-waste end up from the few municipal programs that are running? While it may be sent for “recycling,” without the cradle-to-grave accountability of a Noranda-type operation, there’s little certainty about the ultimate fate of many materials. Every plant should remove dust from the air to the same degree as the Noranda plant.
We must set recycling standards and fund EPR programs to ensure that plants of this quality are the rule, not the exception.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine.