Jaffrey, New Hampshire is a small town in the southwest corner of the state. It’s an old mill town that still supports a number of manufacturing and industrial companies. I came across an interesting company yesterday, one that does “urban mining”. Urban mining is the process of extracting and recycling valuable components from discarded items. The big push is on electronic waste, which has become an immense disposal problem. The company, E-Waste Recyclers, brings in all types of electronic and electrical devices for recycling and value extraction, much like conventional mining. They have about 30,000 square feet of warehouse space filled with piles and bales of segregated components such as printed circuit boards, plastic cabinets, sheet metal frames, wiring, and other hardware. Their activity, and the value of the recycled components, is very much affected by the global economy.
Right now, there is a big market for components containing rare earth minerals. These minerals find their way into dozens of high tech products. The main source of rare earths is China, which is tightly controlling the export market, putting pressure on other sources of these minerals. Besides reopening closed mines elsewhere in the world, extracting rare earths from other sources, such as recycled magnets and electronics is a growing market.
At one time, almost all e-recycling was done in China. It’s a labor intensive process, and with few environmental and safety standards in place, and low wages for their workers, the Chinese dominated the market. With the exposure of the Chinese labor and environmental abuses, increased transportation costs, and the growing value and improved methods for extracting value from components, environmentally safe facilities providing decent wages have sprung up closer to the sources of the e-waste. This is good news and a hidden factor in the broader subject of re-shoring manufacturing, and recycling, back to the US.