Electronic Equipment: Plastics Recycling.
- material recovery vs. energy recovery-
Chris Slijkhuis, Dr. Darren F. Arola, Dr. Brian L. Riise, and Dr. Michael B. Biddle
MBA Polymers, Wirtschaftspark, A-3331 Kematen/Ybbs
Tel: +43-7476-77488 Mobile: +43-664-357 15 22
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.mbapolymers.at
Plastic recycling from durable products such as End-of Life Electronic equipment
is new and finally technologically possible. Recycling these plastics is vital to reach the
targets set in the WEEE directive. Given these new technologies recycled plastics start to
get accepted for high tech applications. The environmental balance is suggesting that
material recycling should be preferred over thermal recovery in order to reduce both
energy consumption and emission of greenhouse gases, as this article will show.
The economic viability of any electronic equipment plastic recycler’s business is
based on finding sources of raw material, employing economical plastics recovery
methods, meeting property requirements, developing markets for the products, and
selling the plastics. Recycling campaigns, governmental mandates/regulations, and
material restrictions (e.g. very
low allowable levels of heavy
metals and other substances) have
brought new opportunities and
challenges to plastics recyclers.
Understanding their impact upon
the evolution of the plastics
recycling industry is important to
policy makers, manufacturers,
recyclers, and consumers.
Over the past 12 years, MBA Polymers, Inc. has developed a unique process to
recycle plastics from E-Waste. MBA Polymers has now installed a processing capacity
of over 80,000 metric tons per year of highly mixed plastic-rich streams from a wide
Kematen/Ybbs, Austria – August 11th 2006. 1
variety of post-consumer E-Waste feed-stocks and this capacity is likely to grow in the
next few years. These plastics rich E-waste feed stocks are recycled and recovered
plastics can be used into new durable plastics with characteristics comparable to virgin.
These products are used as raw material for new electronics, automotive and other
durable products. Manufacturers are eager to use these recycled plastics for two reasons:
a) they are typically sold to customers at prices considerably lower than virgin prices,
helping make these industries be more competitive and b) the manufacturers can develop
“Green Marketing” or “Close the Loop” marketing campaigns and this is becoming a
significant marketing point for many manufacturers.
MBA’s 12-year development and more recent world-scale commercial experience
have provided the company with a unique and valuable perspective on the challenges and
opportunities in this industry.
This paper will provide information on electronic equipment recycling
developments over the past few years, and how these developments have impacted
plastics recyclers such as MBA Polymers. The primary objective of this paper is to
emphasize the fact that incinerating waste plastics from durable products results in the
loss of an enormous amount of energy that was originally added in order to create
complex polymer chains from crude oil. The paper therefore urges the regulatory bodies
of the EU to give clear preference to recycling these plastics for material recovery over
incineration of these materials for energy recovery.
Plastics’ recycling is beneficial for both economic and environmental reasons.
Table 1 is a comparison between virgin resin manufacturing plants and plastic recycling
plants (modeled after MBA’s automated, mechanical recycling approach) which
summarizes some of the economic and environmental benefits of recycling. Although the
specific methodology of the techniques used would influence the specific energy and/or
water consumption of a recycling plant they are, in general, significantly more
environmentally friendly than virgin plastic manufacture.
Kematen/Ybbs, Austria – August 11th 2006. 2
Plastics recycling plants can be much smaller than traditional plastics
manufacturing plants. They are also more flexible since they can be used to recover a
wide variety of plastics with relatively minor changes to the process.
Plastics recycling plants using automated, mechanical recycling technologies
consume less energy, raw materials, and water, and also have less air emissions than
traditional plastics manufacture. The energy and raw materials saved by manufacturing
recycled plastics instead of virgin plastic reduces the emissions of CO2 by two-to-three
kg per kg of plastic produced. The Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe
(APME) provides eco-profiles for a number of plastics that are used in the manufacture
of electronic equipment1. It is evident, from analyzing these eco-profiles, that recycling
plastics can conserve natural resources that would otherwise be used in the manufacture
of virgin plastics.
Kematen/Ybbs, Austria – August 11th 2006. 3
Chemical Plants Automated Recycling
Plant Costs High Low
Process Costs Moderate Lowest
Raw Material Petrochemicals Scrap plastics
Raw Material Cost Medium to High Low
Process Chemical Mechanical
Electric Usage Between 50 and 100 MJ/kg Less than 5 MJ/kg
Water Usage 0.18 cu meters/kg 3 Less than 1% of virgin 4
Global Warming: For every kg of virgin plastic replaced by a kg of recycled
Greenhouse Gas Savings plastic from MBA, 2-3 kg of CO2 emissions are avoided 5
Input-Output flexibility Almost None High
Table 1. Comparisons Between Virgin and Recycled Plastics Production Plants
There are plentiful supplies of scrap plastic and a large demand for plastics in
electronic equipment manufacture.
The Western European consumption of plastics is in the order of 40 million
metric tons (2003) and it is expected that the WEEE directive will result in more than
400000 metric tons of plastics that, until the implementation of the WEEE directive took
place, were mostly land filled. One can see that recovering plastics from post-consumer
durable goods sources is an excellent opportunity given this newly developed technology
for recovery of waste plastics from durable products. It will largely contribute to
reaching the recycling targets set forward by the WEEE Directive.
With the delayed implementation of the WEEE directive into implemented
legislation in a significant number of European States6 the recycling infrastructure to date
is still developing. MBA Polymers is already recycling plastics from many of the
electronics recyclers that have emerged. MBA also recycles plastics from major
electronics recyclers in North America, Japan and China. Compared to some Asian7 and
American8 countries, there are many different approaches to post-consumer electronic
Kematen/Ybbs, Austria – August 11th 2006. 4
equipment recycling that have developed. The specific approach to recycling can vary by
region and it often focuses on the take back and the primary recyclers.
The primary recycler is an organization that sources whole units and, in most
cases, is the supplier of post-consumer plastics to secondary recyclers. Primary recyclers
are typically responsible for removing hazardous components from the units (e.g. cathode
ray tubes), and may also be involved with the recovery of usable parts or with some
segregation of other materials (e.g. metal recovery). The type and physical form of
plastics emanating from these organizations can vary from a narrow range of business
equipment units being recycled under contract to a highly mixed stream of business
equipment resulting from consumer take-back.
The location and specific focus of the primary recycler has a large impact on the
types of plastics that are available. Recyclers within non-manufacturing communities or
high population densities will tend to have more mixed items from consumers unless they
are supplied by nearby manufacturers that are engaged in take-back and part re-use
programs. Manufacturers themselves may also perform their own take-back and
recycling of both pre-consumer and post-consumer units. Recyclers within
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manufacturing environments may
add pre-consumer items or other
mixed plastics from plastic
molders and assemblers to their
The physical form of the
plastic material can be influenced by both the focus and size of the primary recycler.
Organizations having limited space or smaller volume contracts are less apt to install
highly developed and automated metal removal systems, however it is clear to MBA that
the majority of WEEE recyclers are using a shredding approach, after decontamination,
much like the automotive recycling industry to size reduce and liberate the metals so they
can be recovered using automated equipment, such as magnets and eddy current
separators. This results in plastics-rich streams of highly mixed materials:
• Different types and grades of plastics
• Residual metals missed by the metals recyclers
• Wood, cardboard, textiles, foam, glass, etc.
MBA recovers the majority of the plastics from these “shredder residues”. It also
recovers the metals missed by the metal recyclers because the final plastics products may
not contain metal. The material recycling rate is thus not only increased by the recovering
of the plastics, it is also increased due to the higher metal recycling rate from WEEE.
European labor rates limit the amount of manual processing or sorting that can be
economically accomplished with commingled plastic streams. In addition, these
subjective methods of separation can be compromised when like-pigmented and small
particle-sized material is encountered (i.e. commingled granulated plastics). Automated
plastic sorting methods can provide accurate separations and minimize labor costs,
although there are direct costs associated with the installation of automated equipment.
These costs also affect plant volumes needed to achieve economic viability. Recyclers,
whether or not they employ manual or automated sorting technologies, work towards
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securing streams of mixed plastics that enable economic viability based upon their
Although it has been shown that there are a finite number of plastic resins within
electronic business equipment plastic streams9, there are many grades of plastics within
the same resin family that exist which may inhibit recovery, affect recovery yields, or
impact the marketability of the recovered resin(s). For example, there can be grades of
plastic that have different mechanical and melt flow properties, contain different types
and levels of flame retardants, contain different pigments that may limit the range of
product colors, or have paints/coatings that can influence the surface appearance or
mechanical properties of the recycled plastic. Furthermore, there can be many non-
plastics items within these streams that also impact the recovery of targeted plastics.
Items such as wood, rubber, glass, circuit boards, dirt, and packaging material (plastic
wrap and cardboard) are a few of the items commonly encountered when processing
shredded streams of post-consumer plastics. The purity, or “cleanliness” of any recycled
plastic stream is common language used to describe the quality of recovered plastics,
although it may not fully characterize the applicability of the material for an application.
All of these factors must be considered when recovering plastics from electronic
equipment. Processes for recovering high value plastics must therefore contain robust
methods for removing non-plastic materials, plastic-plastic separation methods, and even
methods for separating different grades of a given plastic type. These processes are now
available and operating on a large-scale in Europe, China and North America.
Kematen/Ybbs, Austria – August 11th 2006. 7
If the end goal is to put the plastic resin into high-end applications, similar to the
original parts from which the resins were derived, then rigorous quality standards must be
achieved. These quality standards are similar to those required of virgin plastics and
include minimum physical properties, color, material consistency, UL recognition, and
requirements for low levels of certain
chemical compounds in the material.
Low-end applications may be
appropriate channels for materials
unable to meet the quality standards
or for which the recovery costs
exceed current market pricing.
Physical properties such as the
notched Charpy impact strength (ISO
179), tensile strength (ISO 527), melt
flow rate (ISO 1133), and temperature
of deflection under load (ISO 75) are
commonly used to describe the
processibility and mechanical
properties of plastic materials, so
specifications for a given molded part
often require that the plastic’s
properties meets minimum values for
some or all of these properties. Once it is determined that the plastic meets these general
property requirements, product testing is often used as a more definitive measure that the
material is suitable for the intended application.
The color and appearance is a special consideration for recycled plastic when it is
specified for a given part. Unlike virgin plastics, which initially do not contain pigments,
recycled plastics are derived from mixtures of materials that may contain a wide range of
pigment types and loadings. Even if colorsorting processes are employed, recycled
Kematen/Ybbs, Austria – August 11th 2006. 8
plastics are typically some shade of off-white, gray or black with a narrower range of
economically and technically feasible final product colors. Recycled plastics may also
contain discolorations or specks that are detrimental to the appearance and may therefore
limit their range of applications. Paint and coatings can be used to overcome colorability
constraints, although the recyclability of the painted and/or coated part may be
compromised with this approach. There are several methods of dealing with potential
appearance issues: a) about 60% of the plastics used in automobiles are black and this is a
huge market for recycled plastics, b) there are numerous non-appearance applications in
computers and electronics and other markets, c) co-extrusion and co-injection molding
have been used to place a virgin “cap layer” on parts – and all different colored parts
have been made with up to 70% gray and black recycled plastics in the interior, d) color
sorting of the plastic before extrusion does give some ability to produce recycled
materials that can be compounded with pigment packages to achieve a different color, e)
as with “speckled” recycled paper, some plastic part designers have actually tried to
accentuate any appearance variations to advertise the recycled content.
Material consistency is another requirement of both virgin and recycled plastics.
The difficulty of controlling a wide range of variables in the polymerization process
(temperatures and several concentrations) leads to variability in properties between
batches of virgin plastics. Post-consumer plastics recovered from electronic equipment,
on the other hand, contain plastic grades from various suppliers manufactured over
multiple years. Perhaps counterintuitive to those not familiar with large-scale plastics
recycling, the averaging of all of these batches and grades can result in recycled plastics
being as consistent as virgin plastics.
High end applications such as electronics also require UL recognition for the
plastics. The UL recognition process for recycled plastics is more rigorous than for
virgin plastics, although MBA Polymers currently has two UL recognized products.
Plastics must also meet certain compositional requirements based on the RoHS
Directive. Various additives that are no longer in use may reappear in post-consumer
plastic streams that have been recovered from electronic equipment. Today, such
additives include certain flame retardants as well as heavy metals (e.g. Cadmium) that
were once commonly found in certain pigments. Certain families of brominated flame
Kematen/Ybbs, Austria – August 11th 2006. 9
retardants have been prohibited from being used in new electronic equipment in some
parts of the world and by some manufacturers. Due to the potential for electronic
equipment containing these flame retardants reaching the recycling stream, restrictions in
Europe allow up to 0.1% by weight of these flame retardants in finished electronics
products10. The technology MBA Polymers has developed ensures that the final products
can meet these requirements and tests are available to ensure compliance with these
Once marketing and application development hurdles are surmounted, the
material can be sold into targeted applications. Here, though, available volumes of
recycled plastic can become a concern. Manufacturers are weary about spending the time
and effort to qualify new resins into applications without the supplier being able to
produce substantial volumes, and plastic recyclers cannot afford to produce these
volumes until purchase commitments are made and sources of feed material are secured.
This is often described as the “chicken and egg” problem of the recycling
Kematen/Ybbs, Austria – August 11th 2006. 10
The actual sales price of post-consumer plastic can range from that of post-
industrial sources to the price of virgin11. MBA has proven that post-consumer plastics
can perform as well as virgin plastics in a number of applications. However, current
procurement practices are aimed at reducing material costs to be competitive in a global
economy so, without regulations mandating the use of recycled content in new electronic
equipment, manufacturers are primarily incentivized to use recycle plastics based upon
cost savings. Although cost is often the major issue motivating the purchase of recycled
plastic, MBA Polymers has experienced a few instances where the desire to be “green”
has outweighed price points.
The amount of post-consumer plastics from WEEE, available for plastics
recovery is on the rise due to the WEEE legislation implementation, conscious efforts to
avoid landfilling, and the recognition that there exists viable business opportunities.
Plastics can be now technologically be recovered to provide both environmental and
economic benefits to society.
Plastics recovery from post-consumer electronic equipment is complex. In the
absence of a wide recycling infrastructure there are still logistical issues. Purifying target
plastic(s) within a commingled, post-consumer stream have until recently presented
technical obstacles. With the advent of developing automated, mechanical recycling
technologies, the ability to recover plastics has largely improved.
Once the targeted plastic(s) are recovered, the plastic must be characterized and,
in some cases, modified via extrusion compounding, in order to meet physical property
requirements defined by the part design.
Sales of recycled plastics start to get acceptance and credibility for high tech
Kematen/Ybbs, Austria – August 11th 2006. 11
The environmental balance is clear. Virgin plastics require 900 liters of oil and
14000 kWh of energy to create one metric ton, whilst the same amount of plastics with
similar characteristics can be produced requiring 2 metric tons of plastics from E-Waste
and only 950 kWh. Material recycling therefore should be preferred over thermal
recycling, which besides “wasting” this valuable resource, might result in the emission of
undesirable byproducts from the thermal recovery process.
APME website: www.apme.org.
Calculations from the plastics industry and the US EPA. Higher number includes “feedstock”
energy cost of crude oil starting material.
LCA (Life-Cycle Assessment) studies from APME (Association of Plastics Manufacturers in
Europe) – virgin plants use approximately 40 times as much water to produce the same amount of
plastic as an MBA plant.
From MBA operating experience with its plants in Europe (Austria), Asia (China) and the USA.
From US EPA and other sources.
European Union website http://europa.eu.int/scadplus/leg/en/lvb/l21210.htm.
Japan Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry website
States including, but not limited to: CA, FL, NJ, NY, ME, MI, MN, WI, MA, SC, and RI.
M. Fisher and T. Kingsbury, An Industry Full of Potential: Ten Facts to Know about Plastics
from Consumer Electronics – 2003 update. American Plastics Council.
California SB20, European Union RoHS Directive, and Federal Electronics Challenge
Recommended Criteria to address environmental performance of electronic products.
Plastic News resin pricing chart.
Kematen/Ybbs, Austria – August 11th 2006. 12