In Tinley, a place where old PCs go to die
By Mike Nolan firstname.lastname@example.org July 17, 2014 9:34PM
Old electronics such as computers, printers and televisions are shredded into plastic and metal confetti at 3S International's electronics recycling facility in Tinley Park. | Mike Nolan~Sun-Times Media.
Updated: August 19, 2014 6:10AM
In a large Tinley Park warehouse, discarded printers and fax machines, outdated computer hard drives and keyboards and broken flat-screen televisions sit in big boxes awaiting “triage.”
Workers at long tables will, in some cases, rip out their guts, including old ink cartridges and stray batteries. All of it is destined for a hulking machine, Blubox, that can, in a matter of seconds, reduce it to what resembles cornflake-size chunks of metal, plastic and glass.
At 3S International’s electronics recycling center, the chunks will be sent to companies that will use them as the raw materials for new stuff, possibly more electronic gadgets. Being pulled out are harmful substances, such as mercury, as well as exotic and increasingly expensive materials that have proved to be vital to the manufacture of cell phones, computers and TVs.
The facility opened earlier this year in a business park west of 80th Avenue and north of Interstate 80. The heart of the center is the Blubox, which 3S said is the first installation of the machine in the United States.
Sold by a Swiss company, the 40-foot-long, 24-ton shredder can process up to 14 million pounds of electronics annually, and 3S is feeding into it thousands of pounds daily of old electronics collected from businesses, schools and nonprofit organizations in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.
On a recent weekday, dozens of boxes, each holding hundreds of pounds of material, were lined up ready to be processed.
The yield that pours out of the Blubox includes shredded plastic, metals such as steel, aluminum and copper; glass and other materials, including rare earth elements and precious metals such as gold, silver, platinum and palladium. Nothing ends up being hauled to a landfill, with ready markets for all the raw materials produced, said Gina Yob, vice president of sales and marketing and a co-owner of 3S.
“It’s (Blubox) the first technology available globally to safely and securely process the gadgets of tomorrow,” she said.
But those gadgets of tomorrow contain harmful materials, such as mercury, which frequently is used to backlight laptop and tablet computer displays, as well as some flat-screen televisions. The Blubox uses a series of filters and vacuum-like negative air pressure to capture mercury in the devices, plant manager James Johnson said.
Just one-seventieth of a teaspoon of mercury is enough to contaminate a 25-acre lake, according to the company.
“People are so unaware of what is in these electronics,” Yob said. “We solve a problem many people are not aware of.”
After shredding, metal and plastic are dropped onto a sophisticated optical sorting machine that, even with ear plugs in, sounds as though you’re trapped inside a metal tool shed during a torrential downpour. Little pieces of former computers and TVs zip along a conveyor belt and small pops of air direct pieces to the appropriate bins underneath the belt. Heavier chunks of metal get a bigger nudge that lighter weight plastics.
The company said that, according to estimates, as much as 80 percent of e-waste collected for recycling in the United States is exported for further processing and there is a risk of personal information being retrieved from hard drives in discarded computers. Yob said that for companies dealing with customers’ financial information, shredding old computers enables them to avoid the risk of sensitive data being misused.
In recycling the electronics, 3S also is extracting rare earth elements, which then are recycled and often find their way back into new devices.
China is the primary source for more than 90 percent of rare earth elements, including terbium and yttrium, which are present in electronics such as TVs. The United States relies heavily on imports of rare earths but has resumed mining of the elements because of limits China has imposed on exports.
Yob said that pulling those elements out of discarded electronics is a way of easing possible shortages of critical elements..
“We have more rare earths above ground in our electronics than China has below ground,” she said.
Part of her job is to find new sources of cast-off electronics, and she said 3S is looking at areas such as shredding recalled electronic automotive components.
Yob said that 3S plans, by early September, to open a second e-recycling center in southeast Michigan — the company’s corporate offices are in that state — and that over the next three years could open four to six more around the country.
The general public can drop off unwanted electronics for recycling at the Tinley Park facility, 8450 185th St. For information, call (708) 263-0400 or email email@example.com.