SIMS Recycling Solutions Canada president Cindy Coutts is leading the rapidly growing e-recycling sector, helping orchestrate the regulatory and policy changes needed to integrate metal and plastic salvage into the Canadian economy.
By Tyler Irving
SIMS Recycling Solutions Canada is an above-ground mining company that recovers valuable metals like aluminum, copper and zinc from electronic waste such as computers and televisions. Electronics recyclers have evolved in a challenging regulatory environment that is determining the best way to deal with the growing amount of electronic waste. Cindy Coutts, president of SIMS Recycling Solutions Canada, has been involved in waste and recycling issues from both a commercial and a regulatory perspective at both the international and domestic levels. ACCN spoke with Coutts to get an insider’s perspective on how e-waste laws and regulations are shaping the future of her business, which operates 14 sites in North America and another 40 worldwide.
ACCN How did the idea of an ‘above-ground mine’ come about?
CC Metals are the ultimate recyclable material. You can recycle them over and over again and they never lose any of their inherent properties unlike a paper fibre, which you can only recycle two or three times on average.
The first Canadian facility for SIMS Recycling Solutions was originally built as part of the mining company Noranda, which later became Falconbridge and eventually Xstrata. In the 1980s, the focus on long-term sustainability was something that was bantered about quite a bit. Since we sold a significant portion of some of our metals into a variety of different industries that made products, we were looking to try to prevent the metals from being lost into landfill, so that we wouldn’t have to go out and build quite so many virgin mines to meet society’s insatiable need for metals.
We started looking at the variety of products that consumed our metals and targeted electronics. Even though e-waste only makes up about one per cent of the current waste stream, it is the fastest-growing addition and electronics consume quite a variety of different metals. Originally we had three similar sites: one in California, one in Tennessee and a third site that opened in Brampton in 2003.
ACCN What metals can you extract from e-waste?
CC As a non-ferrous company, we were interested in all the non-ferrous metals: lead, tin, aluminum, copper, cadmium, mercury, nickel and zinc. But the industry has evolved quite a bit in the past 25 years and we’re now looking at recovering all of the resources in electronics, including steel and a variety of different plastic chemistries. We have a recycling rate well into the 90 per cent range.
Obviously there’s a significant difference in the chemical makeup of a laptop, a floor model photocopier or a cell phone, but if you take the group as a whole, you’re looking at about 40 per cent steel and 30 per cent plastic. The remaining 30 per cent is a variety of other materials. So it’s predominantly plastic and steel, but there are probably 25 different output streams that we create as a result of our above-ground mining process.
ACCN How do you separate all these different streams from each other?
CC The first thing we do is a triage to remove anything that is hazardous, which we don’t want going through our mechanical shredders. This includes things like small mercury light bulbs that are in laptops and televisions. We send that to a dedicated mercury bulb recycler. We also remove batteries as some, like a lead-acid battery, are hazardous. You send that to an appropriate recycler.
Unfortunately all these hazards must be removed by hand because each electronic product has a different hazard in it. On top of that, the battery may be in the top left corner from a unit made in 1998 and in the bottom left corner of the same unit made in 1999. We’ve invested quite heavily in dust collection equipment, to make sure that none of that ambient dust is being inhaled by workers or is discharged to the environment. So then you’re left with the electronics without the hazards, and those go through a series of mechanical shredders. We then have several different mechanical separation technologies. For example, we’ll pull off steel using its magnetic properties and we get a nice clean steel chip that we sell to a steel mill. It can be formed into any product that you typically would make from steel such as rebar for the construction industry. Then we pull off aluminum, which goes to an aluminum smelter to be re-consumed. Copper goes to make new wiring, new copper tubing, or new electronics. The capacity of our combined plants is about 100,000 tonnes per year and we employ about 200 people.
Cindy Coutts, president of SIMS Recycling Solutions Canada.
ACCN How do you get your e-waste?
CC In Canada, until about four years ago — and only two years ago in Ontario — e-waste was recycled on an entirely voluntary basis. A company, government or school with old electronics had a few options. Firstly, you could just put it in a landfill. You can still do this; it’s not illegal in most jurisdictions in Canada. Secondly, you could look up recycling on the Internet, but what you’d most likely find are companies I’ll call “sham recyclers.” They would pick up the e-waste and ship it to the developing world. When it arrives, they use cheap manual labour to pick out the bits that have value: the copper, steel and aluminum. Anything difficult or costly to recycle, like the CRT leaded glass, would get dumped in the rivers and ditches and lakes. Finally, if you wanted to do the right thing, you could work with a company like SIMS, and there’s a charge for environmentally sound recycling. It’s fairly nominal, but there’s still a charge.
In the past few decades, we’ve seen the concept of extended producer responsibility, or EPR. This is a global concept that sprang out of jurisdictions in Europe and Japan, where waste is a much more urgent problem because there’s far less land space. EPR is a concept that puts the onus back on the producer to manage the full life cycle of their products and this led to the concept of product stewardship. In product stewardship, regulations are put in place mandating manufacturers to manage their products at the end of their life. They typically do that by levying a fee at the point of sale of a new product; if you purchase a new television in Ontario right now, you’ll notice that there’s a fee on your invoice, called a recycling fee. That fee goes into a pool that is managed by a not-for-profit corporation set up by the manufacturers. The corporation effectively doles this money out to recyclers that meet the standards to conduct proper recycling on their behalf.
ACCN Why charge a fee for recycling waste?
CC The economics are such that the resources we produce give us a positive revenue, but some of them cost us to produce. For example, steel gives us a positive revenue, but something like mercury will cost money to recycle properly. So depending on resource prices, these can net close to nothing. You need to charge a fee for the recycling process to liberate all those resources and to encourage investment into the technology that can do this. This can come from the stewardship programs I mentioned earlier. For example, Ontario currently offers an incentive of $650 per tonne for personal computers and $850 per tonne for display devices.
In other jurisdictions where no stewardship legislation exists, there is still a fee for recycling electronics. It ranges significantly, given the value of the resources, the costs of dealing with any contained hazards and the energy required to separate and recover the resources. We don’t receive any government funding.
ACCN In terms of recycled materials, what are your biggest money-makers?
CC By unit, gold is most valuable at nearly $1,500 per ounce, however, there is very little gold in electronics. Steel, on average, makes up 40 per cent of a mixed electronic stream so by volume it has the highest positive revenue. We recover 25 different resources, all with positive value, however the cost to recover varies by resource.
ACCN You mentioned unscrupulous operators who ship e-waste overseas; is that legal?
CC It’s illegal in Canada to ship e-waste to many countries. However, it happens because transportation is very cheap. Containers of goods from Asia that are sold in our markets frequently go back empty, so the back-haul freight is very cheap. Once the e-waste gets there, labour to pick it apart by hand is also cheap and environmental laws — if they exist at all — are often not enforced.
ACCN How can this be prevented?
CC There are a number of things. Environment Canada is responsible for patrolling our export borders, but we have very few resources for inspecting containers. Secondly, there is a recycling standard that is evolving in Canada; the four provinces that have regulated stewardship programs all use this standard. It’s a very good start, but it needs to be audited much more rigorously. There are recyclers who are approved as environmentally sound under the standard who probably shouldn’t be.
ACCN What is the future of above-ground mining?
CC I believe that we have to have individual producer responsibility, versus extended producer responsibility, so that manufacturers actually compete on managing the life cycle of their products. We don’t have a separate item on the bill for a TV that outlines the cost to meet all the labour laws, or all the transport regulations. So why on earth do we have a separate fee that talks about recycling? You force creativity and efficiencies through competition.
ACCN Why do you stay in this business?
CC I firmly believe that private industry has no bounds on its creativity, and if we can become more sustainable as a society through companies offering environmentally sound services, we’re going to get there a whole lot faster than through strictly regulatory means. We’re a for-profit organization and I think that’s terrific, because we can transcend international boundaries and push higher and higher standards. When I can go home at the end of the day and know that as a result of the work we’re doing at SIMS, we’re diverting waste from landfill, we’re conserving resources, we’re managing hazards well — how much more could you want in your job? You’ve got a career and you’re doing something good for society.
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