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Posted Dec 6th, 2016

How Is My Computer Actually Recycled?

The most common question we’ve heard since opening our doors back in 2003 has to be “how does my computer get recycled, literally?”

The reason we think that so many of you ask is that there’s a lot of confusion and secrecy in our industry, but there doesn’t have to be. Transparency is a great thing, especially for today’s businesses where you’re relying on a much more diverse set of computers, handhelds, servers, and IoT devices, all of which need to be processed thoroughly to keep company data safe.

We use a variety of processes to destroy data and recycle machinery, so today we’ll stick to a high-level view of how we destroy the physical pieces of the most commonly recycled piece of office electronics: the desktop.

(If you’re interested in other parts of data destruction, take a look at our recent breakdown of what a degausser is and how it works.)

computers-really-recycled

Computer Parts Recycling By The Numbers

Your Windows desktop may look a lot different from the Mac down the hall, but they share many of the same types of equipment, and the internals are often surprisingly similar, even if you toss in that Linux or Ubuntu box from your IT department.

Here are a few of the core components of your standard desktop and some information to keep in mind about them for the recycling process:

1. CMOS battery – Also known as the non-volatile RAM, the CMOS is a battery-powered semiconductor that stores information in your computer. Its battery is typically a coin cell alkaline battery and is one of the most toxic and dangerous elements in your computer when it comes to recycling.

2. Motherboards and cards – The nervous system of your computer is usually a multi-layered board that relies heavily on metals such as copper, silver, and gold. The vast majority of printed circuit boards and cards use a lead-based solder to keep everything together.

3. CPU – The brain of your computer is largely composed of gold and silicon and must be carefully processed to separate the two.

4. Hard drives – Traditionally a hard drive stores your data on a rigid magnetic disk which is sealed in an aluminum housing with its own small circuit board. New solid-state drives are small and have no moving parts, so they have some metals but must be specially shredded to destroy the data they contain.

5. Optical drives – Fewer and fewer PCs are coming with optical drives, but if you still do have a CD drive, then yours will contain steel, copper, aluminum, and other metals.

6. The case – Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) plastic is the most common element in today’s towers and cases, with a good frame and mix of ferrous steel to reinforce the shape. Because the plastic contains Brominated Flame Retardants, it must be processed.

Knowing each component and what it is made of makes the recycling process a lot easier for everyone involved.

Aiming for 100% Recyclability

Now it’s time to start the fun part of recycling, refining, and reclamation. The good news is that in almost all cases of computers, we can recycle 100% of the materials. Every now and again you get something so corroded or a new ion battery that’s damage that it must be specially processed with a focus on safety over recyclability – and that’s a federal requirement we can ensure you meet.

Careful Parts Removal

Most people think recycling starts with pulverizing everything and then building back up. We’ve found that it’s a lot better for the environment if we take things slow. We’ll look through all of your equipment and remove parts and pieces that can be reused, so everything is as economical as possible. However, data-containing pieces are always destroyed to protect your company.

Iron and Batteries

Once reusable parts are gone, we continue to break down your machines to get at the CMOS and its battery because it can do harm if shredded and processed. As we remove the CMOS, we encounter a lot of ferrous iron and rip it out, giving us a bulk supply to send to a local metal processing facility for full recycling.

Massive reduction shredders shred the iron and then it is loaded on rail cars and barges to reach steel mills for proper reclamation.

Material Separation in 3 Parts

With the shell and CMOS battery out of the way, we’re ready to get deep into recycling your desktop.

First, all of your equipment is sent through an industrial-strength shredder that grinds everything down into small pieces that are easy to sort and haul. The materials move on a conveyor belt to an eddy current separator that runs a magnetic roller above them. Steel, precious metals from pieces like your motherboard, wiring, processors, and hard drive components are all separated thanks to this big roller.

Steel is sent it off to a steel mill for processing, and precious materials move on to phase two.

The second step is the delamination phase where a fractionator spins those precious materials against a large field of knives to break the materials’ physical bonds. The process repeats until the components are easy to sort and separate.

And the final step is to use a variety of tools and machines to separate your components into three different elements: plastics, precious metals and copper, and aluminum alloys.

Each of these components is then shipped to a special facility that can further separate and use the materials, allowing us to create a complete recycling circle. In most cases, we recycle 100% of the parts we see, and that’s something that your company can be proud of, and your customers will like to hear.

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