September 28, 2021

News

News Network

Science & Tech Spotlight: Consumer Electronics Recycling

10 min read
<div>Why This Matters Consumer electronics contain critical materials whose supplies are limited, including gold, platinum, and rare earth metals. Domestic recycling of consumer electronics could extend the supply and reduce the current U.S. reliance on imports. New technologies are becoming available, but electronics recycling is complex and faces challenges, such as narrow profit margins. The Technology What is it? Recycling of consumer electronics—including smartphones, televisions, and computers—generally involves separating high-value metals from plastics and other low-value materials. Precious metals and rare earth metals are the economic driving force for consumer electronic recycling technology. These metals have high market values and limited supplies, and they can be reused across many industries, including the defense and energy sectors. Consumer electronic devices can also contain personally identifiable information (PII), including medical and financial data, which could be improperly disclosed if they are not destroyed prior to recycling. According to a study of selected consumer electronics, about 2.8 million tons were disposed of in the U.S. in 2017, of which about 36 percent was recycled. Figure 1. Selected valuable, hazardous, and digital materials contained within consumer electronics that can be recovered, disposed, or destroyed There is no federal standard requiring consumer electronics recycling. Some states have enacted electronics recycling laws requiring electronics producers to pay fees or contract with businesses to ensure electronic waste is collected for recycling. The U.S. recycles electronics domestically and also exports electronics for recycling abroad. How does it work? The high concentration of valuable material in certain consumer electronics is key to the economic viability of recycling these products. Cell phones, as one example, have more precious metal by weight than raw ore does. According to the EPA, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, and 75 pounds of gold can be recovered from a million recycled cell phones. Based on commodity market prices on August 12, 2020, these weights of metals are worth approximately $100,000, $290,000, and $2.1 million for copper, silver, and gold, respectively. In contrast, cathode ray tube (CRT) displays in older televisions and computer monitors have little recycling value, but they contain leaded glass and may be considered hazardous waste. In addition, recovery of certain valuable materials from consumer electronics is limited due to the high costs of technology and processing. Electronics recycling companies disassemble devices by shredding, which also destroys PII, or by hand. These companies then separate valuable materials for reuse (including gold, silver, platinum, and rare earth metals) from toxic materials for disposal (including brominated materials and lead). Traditional methods include burning to remove non-metal parts and separation using strong acids. New separation technologies are being used or piloted to recover precious and rare earth metals. For example, robotic disassembly uses machine learning and computer vision to more rapidly pick and sort items. Another new technology uses ultrasound to speed up the chemical removal of gold from cell phone SIM cards. Figure 2. Emerging separation technologies for recycled electronics Other technologies are emerging, like biometallurgy, which uses microorganisms to separate high-value metals from other materials, such as plastics, glass, and glue. For example, naturally occurring bacteria can oxidize gold in acidic solutions, making it soluble and thus easier to separate from other materials. Other advanced techniques, such as magnetic or electrochemical separation, are showing promise in the laboratory with existing technology. For example, in one study, researchers used ultrasound to dissolve nickel and gold within a SIM card. They then used a magnetic field to separate the dissolved nickel, which is magnetic, from the gold, which is not. Similarly, other techniques use electric fields to separate dissolved metals based on their weight and electric charge. How mature is it? Recycling technology is well established for some traditional single-stream processes, such as aluminum recycling. However, electronic devices are more complex and require disassembly and separation. At least one consumer electronics manufacturer is piloting robotic disassembly for its products. Emerging separation technologies such as ultrasound have come to market in the past decade and are being used. Manual disassembly and shredding are decades old. Biometallurgy is being tested in pilot plants, and new microorganisms are being developed in laboratories to treat electronic waste. Opportunities Increase supply and reduce imports. Recycling could increase the domestic supply of precious and rare earth metals and reduce the current U.S. reliance on overseas sources. Grow the green economy. Developing advanced recycling technologies could promote domestic business and employment. Reduce hazardous practices. A significant amount of recycling currently occurs in the developing world, where methods include open-pit burning. New technology could reduce the use of such methods, which are hazardous to the environment and human health. Lessen environmental impacts. Developing advanced recycling technologies could reduce the environmental impacts of raw ore mining and landfill disposal of hazardous materials such as lead and brominated materials. Challenges Market challenges. Markets for recovered materials may be limited, and the value of recovered materials may not be enough to cover the costs of equipment for collection, sorting, disassembly, and separation. Secure destruction of personal information. Many electronic devices contain PII. Shredding them may effectively destroy PII but may also make high-value material harder to recover. Counterfeit electronic parts. Exported used electronics may serve as a source of counterfeit electronic parts, which, as GAO previously reported, could disrupt parts of the Department of Defense supply chain and threaten the reliability of weapons systems. (See GAO-16-236, linked below.) Rapid technological development. As consumer electronics made with new materials get smaller, new technologies for separation may be needed to recycle valuable materials. Policy Context and Questions With the volume of electronic waste expected to grow, questions include: How can programs to support technological innovation, economic development, and advanced manufacturing be leveraged to promote a more robust domestic electronics recycling industry? What efforts can the federal government, states, and others make to incentivize recycling rather than disposal? What are the potential benefits and challenges of such policies? What strategies can the public and private sectors implement to address the risk that exports of used electronics will contribute to unsafe recycling practices, disclosure of PII, and counterfeit electronics? How can reductions in exports bolster job growth? For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.</div>

Why This Matters

Consumer electronics contain critical materials whose supplies are limited, including gold, platinum, and rare earth metals. Domestic recycling of consumer electronics could extend the supply and reduce the current U.S. reliance on imports. New technologies are becoming available, but electronics recycling is complex and faces challenges, such as narrow profit margins.

The Technology

What is it? Recycling of consumer electronics—including smartphones, televisions, and computers—generally involves separating high-value metals from plastics and other low-value materials. Precious metals and rare earth metals are the economic driving force for consumer electronic recycling technology. These metals have high market values and limited supplies, and they can be reused across many industries, including the defense and energy sectors. Consumer electronic devices can also contain personally identifiable information (PII), including medical and financial data, which could be improperly disclosed if they are not destroyed prior to recycling. According to a study of selected consumer electronics, about 2.8 million tons were disposed of in the U.S. in 2017, of which about 36 percent was recycled.

Figure 1. Selected valuable, hazardous, and digital materials contained within consumer electronics that can be recovered, disposed, or destroyed

There is no federal standard requiring consumer electronics recycling. Some states have enacted electronics recycling laws requiring electronics producers to pay fees or contract with businesses to ensure electronic waste is collected for recycling. The U.S. recycles electronics domestically and also exports electronics for recycling abroad.

How does it work? The high concentration of valuable material in certain consumer electronics is key to the economic viability of recycling these products. Cell phones, as one example, have more precious metal by weight than raw ore does. According to the EPA, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, and 75 pounds of gold can be recovered from a million recycled cell phones. Based on commodity market prices on August 12, 2020, these weights of metals are worth approximately $100,000, $290,000, and $2.1 million for copper, silver, and gold, respectively. In contrast, cathode ray tube (CRT) displays in older televisions and computer monitors have little recycling value, but they contain leaded glass and may be considered hazardous waste. In addition, recovery of certain valuable materials from consumer electronics is limited due to the high costs of technology and processing.

Electronics recycling companies disassemble devices by shredding, which also destroys PII, or by hand. These companies then separate valuable materials for reuse (including gold, silver, platinum, and rare earth metals) from toxic materials for disposal (including brominated materials and lead). Traditional methods include burning to remove non-metal parts and separation using strong acids.

New separation technologies are being used or piloted to recover precious and rare earth metals. For example, robotic disassembly uses machine learning and computer vision to more rapidly pick and sort items. Another new technology uses ultrasound to speed up the chemical removal of gold from cell phone SIM cards.

Figure 2. Emerging separation technologies for recycled electronics

Other technologies are emerging, like biometallurgy, which uses microorganisms to separate high-value metals from other materials, such as plastics, glass, and glue. For example, naturally occurring bacteria can oxidize gold in acidic solutions, making it soluble and thus easier to separate from other materials.

Other advanced techniques, such as magnetic or electrochemical separation, are showing promise in the laboratory with existing technology. For example, in one study, researchers used ultrasound to dissolve nickel and gold within a SIM card. They then used a magnetic field to separate the dissolved nickel, which is magnetic, from the gold, which is not. Similarly, other techniques use electric fields to separate dissolved metals based on their weight and electric charge.

How mature is it? Recycling technology is well established for some traditional single-stream processes, such as aluminum recycling. However, electronic devices are more complex and require disassembly and separation. At least one consumer electronics manufacturer is piloting robotic disassembly for its products. Emerging separation technologies such as ultrasound have come to market in the past decade and are being used. Manual disassembly and shredding are decades old. Biometallurgy is being tested in pilot plants, and new microorganisms are being developed in laboratories to treat electronic waste.

Opportunities

  • Increase supply and reduce imports. Recycling could increase the domestic supply of precious and rare earth metals and reduce the current U.S. reliance on overseas sources.
  • Grow the green economy. Developing advanced recycling technologies could promote domestic business and employment.
  • Reduce hazardous practices. A significant amount of recycling currently occurs in the developing world, where methods include open-pit burning. New technology could reduce the use of such methods, which are hazardous to the environment and human health.
  • Lessen environmental impacts. Developing advanced recycling technologies could reduce the environmental impacts of raw ore mining and landfill disposal of hazardous materials such as lead and brominated materials.

Challenges

  • Market challenges. Markets for recovered materials may be limited, and the value of recovered materials may not be enough to cover the costs of equipment for collection, sorting, disassembly, and separation.
  • Secure destruction of personal information. Many electronic devices contain PII. Shredding them may effectively destroy PII but may also make high-value material harder to recover.
  • Counterfeit electronic parts. Exported used electronics may serve as a source of counterfeit electronic parts, which, as GAO previously reported, could disrupt parts of the Department of Defense supply chain and threaten the reliability of weapons systems. (See GAO-16-236, linked below.)
  • Rapid technological development. As consumer electronics made with new materials get smaller, new technologies for separation may be needed to recycle valuable materials.

Policy Context and Questions

With the volume of electronic waste expected to grow, questions include:

  • How can programs to support technological innovation, economic development, and advanced manufacturing be leveraged to promote a more robust domestic electronics recycling industry?
  • What efforts can the federal government, states, and others make to incentivize recycling rather than disposal? What are the potential benefits and challenges of such policies?
  • What strategies can the public and private sectors implement to address the risk that exports of used electronics will contribute to unsafe recycling practices, disclosure of PII, and counterfeit electronics? How can reductions in exports bolster job growth?

For more information, contact Karen Howard at (202) 512-6888 or HowardK@gao.gov.

News Network

  • Safe Haven for Hong Kongers
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Opening Remarks by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo Before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Michael R. Pompeo, [Read More…]
  • Albania Travel Advisory
    In Travel
    Reconsider travel to [Read More…]
  • Zimbabwe Independence Day
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Taxpayer Advocate Service: Opportunities Exist to Improve Reports to Congress
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The budget for the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) declined by about 14 percent from fiscal years 2011 to 2020, when adjusted for inflation. For fiscal year 2020, TAS used most of its resources to assist individual taxpayers, known as case advocacy. TAS allocated about 76 percent of its $222 million budget and 86 percent of its almost 1,700 full-time equivalents to this purpose. The percentage of resources for case advocacy has decreased during the past decade—in fiscal year 2011 about 85 percent of the budget was devoted to it. For the same period, resources to address broader issues affecting groups of taxpayers, known as systemic advocacy, increased from 9 percent to 14 percent of the total budget. This shift is due in part to the reallocation of staff to better integrate systemic advocacy work and TAS's overall attrition rate more than doubling to 15.9 percent between fiscal years 2011 and 2019. Since 2011, TAS has received more than 2 million taxpayer cases, of which almost half were referrals from other IRS offices. TAS closed more cases than it received each year from 2012 to 2017, but its inventory has grown since fiscal year 2018, due in part to attrition in case advocacy staff and an increase in taxpayers seeking assistance (see figure below). Number of Taxpayer Cases Received and Closed, Fiscal Years 2011 to 2020 TAS has recently modified its two mandated reports to Congress by reducing their length and separately compiling legislative recommendations. It shortened its annual reports in part because the Taxpayer First Act reduced the required number of most serious taxpayer problems from “at least 20” to “the 10” most serious problems. GAO identified the following additional actions that could further improve TAS reporting. Report outcome-oriented objectives and progress. The objectives for the upcoming fiscal year that TAS included in its most recent report are not always clearly identified and do not link to the various planned activities that are described. Further, the objectives TAS does identify do not include measurable outcomes. In addition, TAS's reports do not include the actual results achieved against objectives so it is not possible to assess related performance and progress. Improved performance reporting could help both TAS and Congress better understand which activities are contributing toward achieving TAS's objectives and where actions may be needed to address any unmet goals. Consult with Congress and other stakeholders. TAS briefs congressional committees each year after publishing its annual report and solicits perspectives from stakeholders. TAS officials said they incorporate the perspectives into its objectives. However, TAS does not follow leading practices to consult congressional committees about its goals and objectives prior to publication at least once every 2 years. Thus, it misses opportunities to obtain congressional input on its objectives and performance reporting. Consultations would provide TAS opportunities to confirm if its goals incorporate congressional and other stakeholder perspectives and whether its reports meet their information needs. Publish updates on recommendation implementation status. By law, TAS's annual report must include an inventory of actions IRS has fully, partially, and not yet taken on TAS's recommendations to address the most serious problems facing taxpayers. If those recommendations take multiple years to implement, which some have as shown in the table below, updating the inventory would be required. In its objectives reports, TAS provides only a one-time inventory of IRS responses to TAS's recommendations made during the preceding year, including plans and preliminary actions taken for those IRS accepts for implementation. TAS does not publicly update the inventory in subsequent annual reports to reflect actions IRS takes or does not take to address TAS's recommendations. This reporting approach does not provide complete information on the status of actions IRS has taken to address serious problems facing taxpayers and also does not provide the information in the annual report, as required. Publishing such updated status information would support congressional oversight. Taxpayer Advocate Service's (TAS) Recommendation Reporting and Status as of the Fourth Quarter of Fiscal Year 2020 GAO also identified options for TAS to consider to improve its reporting. These options include explaining changes to the list of the most serious taxpayer problems from year to year and streamlining report sections congressional staff use less frequently. Why GAO Did This Study TAS, an independent office within IRS, helps taxpayers resolve problems with IRS and addresses broader, systemic issues that affect groups of taxpayers by recommending administrative and legislative changes to mitigate such problems. Congress mandated that TAS issue two reports every year—one known as the annual report which includes sections on, among other things, the 10 most serious problems encountered by taxpayers, and the other known as the objectives report that discusses organizational objectives. GAO was asked to review how TAS carries out its mission, focusing on resources and reporting. This report (1) describes TAS's resources and workload, and (2) assesses TAS's reporting to Congress and identifies opportunities for improvement. GAO reviewed documents from TAS, IRS, and other sources, including TAS's annual and objectives reports and internal guidance; analyzed TAS's budget, staffing, and workload data for fiscal years 2011 through 2020; and interviewed knowledgeable TAS and IRS officials. GAO assessed TAS's reporting of its objectives and performance against statutory requirements, relevant internal control standards, and selected key practices for performance reporting developed by GAO. In addition, GAO reviewed relevant TAS web pages, analyzed the length and composition of TAS's reports, and interviewed key congressional committee staff to identify additional options to improve TAS's reporting.
    [Read More…]
  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken and Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Before Their Meeting
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Burundi National Day
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • 2020 Census: Key Areas for Attention Raised by Compressed Timeframes
    In U.S GAO News
    In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and an August decision to end data collection about 30 days earlier than planned, the Census Bureau (Bureau) has made late design changes to the 2020 Census. The Bureau also announced it would accelerate its response processing operations, which improve the completeness and accuracy of census results. According to the Bureau, late design changes introduce risk to census quality and costs. The compressed time frames for field operations and data processing raise a number of issues that will require the Bureau's attention. It will be important for the Bureau to hire and retain a sufficient workforce, manage operational changes to the Nonresponse Follow-up operation, ensure census coverage at the local level, evaluate risks in streamlining response processing, and ensure timely and quality processing of census responses. As the 2020 Census continues, GAO will monitor the remainder of field operations and the Bureau's response processing operations.  Like the rest of the country, the Bureau has been required to respond to COVID-19. Resulting delays, compressed time frames, implementation of untested procedures, and continuing challenges could undermine the overall quality of the count and escalate census costs. GAO was asked to testify on its ongoing work on implementation of the 2020 Census. This testimony examines the cost and progress of key 2020 Census operations critical to a cost-effective enumeration. Over the past decade, GAO has made 112 recommendations specific to the 2020 Census. To date, the Bureau has implemented 92. As of September 2020, 19 of the recommendations had not been fully implemented. For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm at (202)512-6806 or mihmj@gao.gov.
    [Read More…]
  • West Virginia Woman Sentenced for Willful Retention of Top Secret National Defense Information and International Parental Kidnapping
    In Crime News
    Elizabeth Jo Shirley, of Hedgesville, West Virginia, was sentenced today to 97 months of incarceration for unlawfully retaining documents containing national defense information and 36 months of incarceration for international parental kidnapping. Shirley, 47, pleaded guilty to one count of willful retention of national defense information and one count of international parental kidnapping in July 2020. Shirley admitted to unlawfully retaining a National Security Agency (NSA) document containing information classified at the Top Secret/Secret Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) level relating to the national defense that outlines intelligence information regarding a foreign government’s military and political issues. Shirley also admitted to removing her child, of whom she was the non-custodial parent, to Mexico with the intent to obstruct the lawful exercise of the custodial father’s parental rights.
    [Read More…]
  • United States Sanctions Five Iranian Entities and Watchlists IRGC Cyber Actors for Interfering in Our Elections
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Michael R. Pompeo, [Read More…]
  • [Protest of Army Contract Award for Base Operations and Maintenance Services]
    In U.S GAO News
    A firm protested an Army Corps of Engineers contract award for base operations and maintenance services, contending that the (1) awardee's proposal contained unbalanced item prices and (2) Corps failed to assess whether the unbalancing posed an unacceptable risk to the government. GAO held that (1) the Corps performed a reasonable price analysis of the bidders' line item prices and (2) there was no evidence of significant risk to the government due to the awardee's pricing scheme. Accordingly, the protest was denied.
    [Read More…]
  • Federal Court Enters Permanent Injunction Against Florida Compounding Pharmacy and its Owner to Prevent Distribution of Adulterated Drugs
    In Crime News
    More from: September 17, [Read More…]
  • Secretary Blinken’s Call with Canadian Foreign Minister Garneau
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • Justice Department Sues To Block Geisinger Health’s Transaction With Evangelical Community Hospital
    In Crime News
    The U.S. Department of Justice sued today to block Geisinger Health’s partial acquisition of its close rival, Evangelical Community Hospital. The complaint alleges that the agreement fundamentally alters the relationship between the parties, raising the likelihood of coordination and reducing Defendants’ incentives to compete aggressively against each other. As a result, the transaction is likely to lead to higher prices, lower quality, and reduced access to high-quality inpatient hospital services for patients in central Pennsylvania. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
    [Read More…]
  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken with Kuwait Television
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Statement from Attorney General Merrick B. Garland
    In Crime News
    U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland today made the following statement:
    [Read More…]
  • Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s Visit to Japan and the People’s Republic of China
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • Five Charged in Scheme to Export Thermal Imaging Scopes and Night Vision Goggles to Russia, in Violation of Arms Export Control Act
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury in Los Angeles unsealed an indictment Thursday that accuses five defendants of conspiring to unlawfully export defense articles to Russia. Specifically, the defendants allegedly exported thermal imaging riflescopes and night-vision goggles without a license, in violation of the Arms Export Control Act.
    [Read More…]
  • Secretary Antony J. Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Before Their Meeting
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Antony J. Blinken, [Read More…]
  • Switzerland’s Largest Insurance Company and Three Subsidiaries Admit to Conspiring with U.S. Taxpayers to Hide Assets and Income in Offshore Accounts
    In Crime News
    The Department of Justice today filed a criminal information charging Swiss Life Holding AG (Swiss Life Holding), Swiss Life (Liechtenstein) AG (Swiss Life Liechtenstein), Swiss Life (Singapore) Pte. Ltd. (Swiss Life Singapore), and Swiss Life (Luxembourg) S.A. (Swiss Life Luxembourg), collectively, the “Swiss Life Entities,” with conspiring with U.S. taxpayers and others to conceal from the IRS more than $1.452 billion in offshore insurance policies, including more than 1,600 insurance wrapper policies, and related policy investment accounts in banks around the world and the income generated in these accounts.
    [Read More…]
Network News © 2005 Area.Control.Network™ All rights reserved.