In my last piece, I took you to an electronic-waste sorting facility in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was fascinated to see the breadth of the products that came through the facility and the number of separate material streams created just from mechanical separation of parts. Naturally, my curiosity had me asking: What’s next for all these materials?
That inquisitiveness led me to the brand-new Camston Wrather circuit board recycling facility in Carlsbad, California. The process it has developed and the facility the company has built is unlike anything I’ve seen before, so I asked Aaron Kamenash, co-founder and chief innovation officer, to answer a few questions to help me better understand this part of the e-waste recycling supply chain.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the e-waste problem is huge. Even though circuit boards make up only a small fraction of the overall weight of the e-waste stream, they are a very important part of the e-waste puzzle because of the value of the materials they contain.
Using data from the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, estimates from Camston Wrather and some back-of-the-envelope math, we can see that only about 12 percent of all e-waste in the United States by weight is circuit boards. Within that small weight percentage, though, is over $2,000 of precious metals per ton of circuit boards, or more than $1.6 billion in total value each year in the United States alone.
The bright spot is that we have the technology to capture the metals from circuit boards and efficiently cycle them back into the ingredients to make new electronics. If Camston Wrather (or potentially others like it) can grow, it could make a huge dent in the amount of precious metals going to waste in the U.S. and move it one step closer to a circular future for our used electronics. Combine that with efforts to increase repair and refurbishment, and we can start to see the makings of a circular future for the gadgets that power our modern lives.
After speaking with Kamenash in February, I asked him to answer questions about the company and the new facility in writing. The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.
Jon Smieja: Tell us a bit about the evolution of the company. I understand you started with trying to recover materials from mining tailings and ultimately pivoted to focus on the growing e-waste problem?
Aaron Kamenash: Yes, that’s correct, the company was founded 9.5 years ago with the intent of improving the environmental impact on mines and, as the e-waste problem grew, we realized that it was becoming an even bigger problem to tackle. While pivoting, we realized there was an opportunity to innovate within the industry and develop a solution that wouldn’t use heat, pressure or chemistry.
Smieja: How much material can you process through your Carlsbad facility? How many of these facilities would it take to process all the e-waste in the U.S.?
Kamenash: The new facility can process 1.5 million pounds per month, and it would require over 100 plants to keep up with all of North America’s circuit board e-waste.
Smieja: Give our readers a sense of the inputs and outputs of your process.
Kamenash: Through our network we receive inputs through our recycling locations of anything you can imagine that contains a circuit board. We have processed everything from missiles for the U.S. government down to cell phones and even smaller devices. Our outputs are three very pure concentrates of ferrous metal [magnetic materials including critical minerals and rare earths], non-ferrous metals [including gold, silver, copper and palladium] and a polymer concentrate. These outputs are all 100 percent recycled, and nothing from the facility is wasted.
Smieja: Where do the inputs come from, and how are they collected?
Kamenash: We have a variety of enterprise, small and midsize businesses, as well as government and municipality suppliers that we source products from. We’re looking to incorporate consumer-facing capacity by 2025.
Smieja: Where does the material go when it leaves your facility? In other words, what's the next step?
Kamenash: Our metals are processed and refined in one final step so they can re-enter the supply chain as recycled metals. The polymer is off-taken and used in materials such as flooring, concrete and particle board substitutes.
Smieja: When I visited the facility, you mentioned the future might be in a hub-and-spoke model for recycling this waste stream. Tell us a bit about this vision.
Kamenash: We envision building our footprint out so that there are resource recovery facilities across the country [and the world] that can feed local recycling operations with material to process. The network would be built in a way that would reduce the need to ship materials around and also make it so manufacturers could get the recycled metals and minerals that they need as efficiently as possible so the world has a true circular solution.