What Is The Average Weight For A 4 7 10-Year-Old What’s In The Future For Electronics Recycling?

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What’s In The Future For Electronics Recycling?

Electronics recycling in the United States is growing as the industry consolidates and matures. The future of electronics recycling—at least in the United States, and perhaps globally—will be driven by electronics technology, precious metals, and industrial structure, in particular. Although there are other issues that may affect the industry – such as consumer electronics collections, legislation and regulations and export issues – I believe these 3 factors will have a more profound impact on the future of electronics recycling.

The most recent data on the industry – from a survey conducted by the International Data Corporation (IDC) and sponsored by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) – found that the industry (in 2010) handled approximately 3.5 million tons of electronics with revenues . of 5 billion dollars and directly employed 30,000 people – and that it has been growing about 20% annually for the past decade. But will this growth continue?

Electronic Technology

Personal computer equipment dominated volumes handled by the electronics recycling industry. The IDC study reported that more than 60% by weight of industrial input volumes were “computer equipment” (including computers and monitors). But recent reports from IDC and Gartner show that desktop and laptop shipments have declined by more than 10% and that smartphone and tablet shipments are now outpacing PC shipments. About 1 billion smartphones will be shipped in 2013 – and for the first time will exceed the volumes of conventional mobile phones. And shipments of ultra-light laptops and laptop-tablet hybrids are increasing rapidly. So, we are entering the “Post-PC Era”.

In addition, CRT televisions and monitors were a significant part of the input volumes (by weight) in the recycling stream – up to 75% of the “consumer electronics” stream. And the demise of the CRT means that fewer CRT TVs and monitors will enter the recycling stream – replaced by smaller/lighter flat screens.

So, what do these technology trends mean to the electronics recycling industry? Do these advances in technology that lead to size reduction result in a “smaller material footprint” and less overall volume (by weight)? Since mobile devices (eg, smartphones, tablets) already represent larger volumes than computers – and are likely to turn over faster – they are likely to dominate the future volumes entering the recycling stream. And not only are they much smaller, but they usually cost less than computers. And, traditional laptops are being replaced by ultrabooks as well as tablets – meaning the laptop equivalent is much smaller and weighs less.

So, even with continually increasing amounts of electronics, the weight volume entering the recycling stream may begin to decrease. Typical desktop computer processors weigh 15-20 lbs. Traditional laptops weigh 5-7 lbs. But the new “ultra-books” weigh 3-4 pounds. So, if “computers” (including monitors) made up about 60% of the total industrial input volume by weight and televisions made up a large part of the volume of “consumer electronics” (about 15% of the industry input volume) – then up to 75% of the input volume can be subjected to the weight reduction of new technologies – perhaps up to 50% reduction. And, similar technological change and size reduction is happening in other markets – eg, telecommunications, industrial, medical, etc.

However, the intrinsic value of these devices can be higher than PCs and CRTs (for resale as well as scrap – per unit weight). So, industrial heavy volumes may decrease, but revenues could continue to increase (with resale, recovery value of materials and services). And, since mobile devices are expected to turn around faster than computers (which have typically turned around in 3-5 years), these changes in the electronics recycling stream can happen within 5 years or less.

Another factor for the industry to consider, as recently reported by E-Scrap News – “The general wearable trend in computing devices, including traditional form factors, is characterized by integrated batteries, components and non-repairable parts. With repair and refurbishment increasingly difficult. for these types of devices, electronic waste processors will face significant challenges in determining the best way to manage these devices responsibly, as they gradually form an increasing part of the end-of-life management stream.” So, does this mean that the resale potential for these smaller devices may be less?

The electronics recycling industry has traditionally focused on computers and consumer electronics, but what about infrastructure equipment? – such as servers/data centers/cloud computing, telecommunication systems, cable network systems, satellite/navigation systems, defense/military systems. These sectors generally use larger, higher value equipment and have significant (and growing?) volumes. They are not generally visible or considered when considering the electronic recycling industry, but can be an increasingly important and larger part of the volumes that it handles. And some, if not much, of this infrastructure is due to a change in technology – which will result in a large volume turnover of equipment. GreenBiz.com reports that “…as the industry overhauls and replaces…servers, storage and networking tools to accommodate massive consolidation and virtualization projects and prepare for the age of cloud computing…the cloud computing architecture, the inventory of physical IT assets will move from the consumer to the data center… As the number of consumer devices increases, they also shrink. Meanwhile, data centers are upgraded and expanded, potentially creating a large amount of future electronic waste.”

But, outside the US – and especially in developing countries – the input volume weight to the electronic recycling stream will increase significantly – as the use of electronic devices spreads to a wider market and infrastructure for recycling is developed. In addition, developing countries will continue to be attractive markets for the resale of used electronics.

Precious Metals

In the IDC study, more than 75% by weight of industrial output volumes were found to be “commodity-grade scrap”. And more than half of that was “metals”. Precious metals represent a small part of the volume – the average concentration of precious metals in an electronic chip is measured in grams per ton. But their recovery value is a significant part of the total value of a commodity-quality piece of electronics.

Prices of precious metals have increased significantly in recent years. The market prices for gold, silver, palladium and platinum have each more than doubled over the past five years. However, gold and silver have historically been very volatile because their prices are driven primarily by investors. Their prices seem to have peaked – and are now significantly below their high points last year. Whereas, the prices of platinum and palladium have traditionally been driven by demand (eg, manufacturing – such as electronic and automotive applications) and generally more stable.

Telecommunications equipment and mobile phones generally have the highest precious metals content – up to 10 times the average of waste electronics on a per unit weight basis. As technology advances, the precious metals content of electronic equipment generally decreases – due to cost reduction learning. However, the smaller, newer devices (eg, smartphones, tablets) have a higher precious metal content per unit weight than conventional electronic equipment – such as computers. So, if the weight volume of electronic equipment handled by the electronics industry decreases, and the market prices of precious metals decrease – or at least do not increase – will the recovery of precious metals from e-waste decrease? It is likely that the recovery value of precious metals from e-waste per unit weight will increase as more electronic products become smaller/lighter, but have a higher concentration of precious metals (eg, cell phones) than traditional e-waste overall. So, this aspect of the industry can actually become more cost effective. But the overall industry revenue from commodity scrap – and precious metals in particular – may not continue to rise.

Industrial Structure

The electronics recycling industry in the United States can be thought of as consisting of 4 tiers of firms. From the largest – that process well over 20 to over 200 million lbs. per year – to medium, small and the smallest companies – that process less than 1 million lbs. per year The top 2 parts (which represent about 35% of the companies) process about 75% of the industry volume. The number of companies in “Tier 1” has already decreased due to consolidation – and continued industry consolidation is likely to drive it further towards the familiar 80/20 model. Although there are over 1000 companies operating in the electronics recycling industry in the United States, I estimate that the “Top 50” companies process almost half of the total industry volume.

What will happen to the smaller companies? The mid-sized companies will either merge, acquire, acquire or partner to compete with the larger companies. The small and smallest companies will either find a niche or disappear. So, the total number of companies in the electronics recycling industry is likely to decrease. And more volumes will be handled by the biggest companies. As with any maturing industry, the most cost efficient and profitable companies will survive and grow.

perspective

What are the implications of these trends?

• The total weight of input volumes is unlikely to continue to grow (as it has at 20% annually) – and may actually decline in the US

• The electronics recycling industry will continue to consolidate – and the largest companies will handle most of the industry volumes.

• The intrinsic value for resale and material recovery is likely to increase per unit volume.

• Reuse and services can become a more significant part of total industry revenue than recycling and material recovery.

Conclusion:

In an environment of consolidation and potentially declining volumes, developing additional capacity or starting a new facility for electronics recycling in the United States could be very risky. Acquiring the most cost-effective existing capacity available would be more prudent.

All rights reserved © 2013 John Powers

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