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Recyclers want big bite of e-plastics cake

Around 20% (by weight) of the 50 million tonnes of e-scrap produced around the world each year is plastics. This waste stream was a hot topic at the recent E-scrap Conference in New Orleans where two entrepreneurs from North America shared their experiences.

‘The typical feedstock we receive is nice and clean but not all e-scrap plastic looks beautiful owing to contamination by things like plastic film,’ says Mei Zhou, co-founder and managing director of BoMet Polymer Solutions. Her 100% women-run business based in Ontario, Canada processes around 55 tonnes of material per hour. The recycling line includes flotation and optical sorting separation steps, running two shifts five days a week.

‘We are aware that only about 10% of e-scrap plastic in the US and Canada is recycled,’ Zhou says. ‘Meanwhile, the volume generated is enormous. It totalled around 13 million tonnes in the US alone last year.’ This is up notably from 2018 levels, she added, when it was at roughly 2.5 tonnes. ‘Of course, the figure has been impacted by China’s import bans.’

Don’t let it disappear

BoMet achieves a recycling rate between 90-95%. ‘This way, we hope we will be able to help make a difference,’ Zhou adds. ‘The next step for us will be to scale up our operations in the very near future.’

She labels the recycling infrastructure in North America as ‘inadequate’ and laments that the pandemic caused interruptions across the industry value chain, including at BoMet. It doesn’t help that plastics and discarded electronics have gained a bad reputation. Zhou’s team is hopeful that increasing awareness about recycling will encourage more science and research-based education and erode the practice of ‘trial by media’.

Ensuring OEMs set recycled plastic standards to boost demand is seen as another priority. ‘Are they not paying attention?’ she wonders. ‘I don’t understand: how are you letting plastics disappear right in front of your face? They have to see the bigger picture and do their part to ensure a strong plastic recycling sector.’

Thousands of plastic sheets

Her call was echoed by Megan Tabb of Synergy Electronics Recycling, based in North Carolina. ‘We need to recycle as much material as we possibly can, obviously. It is a struggle, however, to add value and find outlets for recovered e-plastics. Most people are after the metals.’

Tabb estimates that around 50-60% of household and IT appliances are now plastic. ‘They are carefully disassembled by our team and fed through our big shredder,’ she says. ‘We have as few processing steps as possible. We do density sorting and metal sorting, of course, but the rest is very straight-forward. We don’t target specific polymer types.’

Synergy manufactures what Tabb describes as ‘sturdy’ plastic sheets, similar to plywood. ‘We started making these after our team figured: “We ship plastic scrap all over the world before we do anything with it. Can’t we handle more volume domestically?” So we launched a new site in Madison, where we now make about 100 000 sheets per year.”

The recovery percentage rate is in the high 90s. ‘We follow the guidelines on pollutants and chemicals of concern outlined by the EU,’ Tabb notes, adding that the plywood products market is a multi-billion industry with lots of potential for recycled content. ‘We want a piece of that cake.’

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