Discarded circuit boards ready for processing

Discarded circuit boards ready for processing. (Photo courtesy ECS Refining)

Filtering the e-waste stream

When the average desktop computer, laptop or cell phone in this country reaches the end of its life — an increasingly brief span these days — it’s likely to end up in a landfill. If not, it may be shipped to Southeast Asia and dismantled under poor conditions, its toxic components endangering workers and the environment. But on the Berkeley campus, most e-waste is responsibly recycled just 75 miles away in Stockton, California.

Glen Langstaff. (Photo courtesy Glen Langstaff)Up until a year ago, Glen Langstaff (B.S.’77 ME/NE) knew as much about e-waste as the average person. Now, as general manager and vice president of operations at Stockton-based ECS Refining, he helps lead one of the field’s most successful firms, and he is also collaborating with Berkeley professor Pieter Abbeel on the development of a new generation of self-learning robots for the e-waste industry.

Sixty percent of e-waste generated in this country — namely discarded electric devices and their parts, from modems and mice to obscure medical instruments — goes straight to a landfill or incinerator. Of the 3.14 million tons generated nationwide in 2013, roughly 40 percent (or 1.27 million tons) was recycled, according to the latest data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And of that, an unknown, potentially sizable portion was sent overseas.

By contrast, with the exception of the odd desk chair or refrigerator, virtually all e-waste and office accessories (including lead-containing CRT glass and hazardous toner cartridges) that enter ECS Refining’s flagship facility in Stockton are inspected, tested and sold whole for re-use, or dismantled and recycled, according to Langstaff. That means all fiber, plastic and metal components, whether steel, gold, platinum, copper or aluminum. These reprocessed materials end up back in homes and businesses as appliances, furniture, tools, structural steel, paper-towel tubes and the like.

The company’s sprawling, state-of-the-art plant came online four years ago and now processes about 100 million pounds (or 50,000 tons) of e-waste annually from consumers, corporations, non-profits, government agencies and educational institutions like Berkeley.

How does it work?

Step 1: Materials arrive by the truckload.

Step 2: Workers sort e-waste into various categories: laptops and flat-panel screens, CRTs and rear projection TVs, desktop computers, etc. Products are demanufactured as needed.

Step 3: Crushed CRT glass is sent to an offsite smelter to separate lead from glass. Other hazardous materials like toner and batteries are sent to a different company to break down and reprocess.

Step 4: Materials ready for recycling are fed onto conveyor belts through shredders that reduce them to pieces about four to eight inches across.

Step 5: On the other side, associates sort pieces by material such as aluminum, steel, copper and circuit board with precious metals.

Step 6: A second round of shredding reduces remaining materials to roughly one to three inches square.

Step 7: Automated, electronic sorting further divides the materials into purer streams ready for packaging and sale as commodities world-wide.

Final step: These raw materials are transported by truck or container ship to manufacturers for reuse in new products.

UC Berkeley has been selling its e-waste — more than 100 tons last year, and climbing — to ECS since 2009, says Eric Anglim, campus property management director. Berkeley’s e-waste program dispatches secure collection bins by request to locations campus-wide, then sorts out valuable items for resale before sending everything else to ECS. “Our arrangement with them is that every item we send, they have to de-manufacture,” Anglim says — including shredding all hard drives.
After studying mechanical and nuclear engineering at Berkeley, Langstaff worked as a sort of general-operations guru in a variety of fields — steel processing, medical devices, food equipment, automotive, construction and robotics — before starting at ECS last fall. He’s a generalist and an outsider by choice, he says, bringing a fresh set of eyes to industries where specialists can often be blinded by what’s right in front of them.

This position both obligates him to spot small problems and frees him to think big.

When Langstaff moved over to ECS in 2014, estimates of recycled U.S.-derived e-waste were closer to 30 percent. Learning this, he figured he could help both the industry and ECS do better. Based on the success of their Stockton plant, Langstaff and his colleagues would like all e-waste nationwide to be recycled, and they hope to lead the way in getting there.

To do so, ECS is now working with robotics expert and electrical engineering and computer sciences associate professor Abbeel on a new class of robots to support employees on the plant floor, serving in the most dangerous or repetitive roles while actively learning and interacting with their human counterparts. A robot could hold a heavy CRT monitor for a human to dismantle, for example, or help sort electronic parts on the conveyor belt.

“If we can put a robot in place of a difficult job, then that’s the right thing to do,” says Langstaff. “It not only makes for a safer work environment, but improves efficiency. This model could be key to the expansion and eventual saturation of ethical e-waste recycling nationwide.”

Currently, 24 states have laws requiring or subsidizing e-waste recycling, but only California’s program is funded directly by consumers via a fee at the point of sale. That gives local recyclers like ECS a leg up. “It has to be economically attractive,” Langstaff says. The more it is, the more existing businesses like ECS will expand and the more new players will enter the industry.

“One hundred percent recycling is a vision that we’re folding in here at ECS to drive our thinking, so that we can become more and more efficient,” Langstaff says. “Our ultimate goal is to see all electronics recycled rather than going to landfill.”