PRI extracts polymers from electronics

July 26, 2021
The company's new electronics shredder residue sorting line separates four kinds of polymers, which are then processed back into pellets.

This article appears in the summer 2021 issue of Plastics Recycling. Read more from the issue here.

By Ron Shinn 

Electronics shredder residue (ESR) has long bedeviled plastic recyclers but the decision to invest in dedicated sorting technology for that difficult material is paying off for Plastic Recycling Inc. (PRI) in Indianapolis. 

PRI started its new ESR sorting line in October and is currently processing 6,000 pounds per hour, running four 24-hour shifts per week. The goal is to significantly increase throughput and to offer manufacturers of electronic products in the U.S. a true circular economy solution for their plastic. 

ESR, which is the material that remains after waste electronics are shredded and the valuable metals are removed, still contains a great deal of small pieces of metal and other impurities but the biggest problem is that every bale or box contains a wide range of polymers, according to Brandon Shaw, PRI marketing manager. “We basically have the whole chain,” he said. “Plenty of companies can do the sorting but they don’t have the compounding knowledge that we have and they have to rely on someone like us to buy their clean flake. 

“We go all the way downstream from the e-waste shredder back into a pellet. That is our competitive advantage,” Shaw said. “A lot of companies have failed when they tried to do this because they had to rely on the market to dictate pricing. We can take that factor out of the equation.” 

Shaw said PRI will expand from running ESR for four days per week to seven days as soon as labor is available. The company is also looking at starting satellite plants in the Southeast and West to do initial processing of ESR that can then be shipped to Indianapolis for final processing. 

The decision to invest $2 million to start recycling ESR came when PRI recognized an opportunity to take advantage of a low-cost feedstock stream that had traditionally been exported. “With all the restrictions on moving waste to other countries, we saw opportunity in a big glut of material that was going to have to stay domestic,” Shaw said. “We saw an opportunity to feed our extruders. We have a big demand for recycled PS from our existing customers.” 

Amendments to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal that went into effect Jan. 1 has caused most e-waste to stay in the country where it is generated. Prior to Jan. 1, much of the e-waste from the U.S. was sold to companies in Asia. Earlier, China’s crackdown on scrap imports disrupted markets for e-waste. 

PRI’s sorting goal is to extract four polymers it can use — acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polystyrene (PS), polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) — from the 13 to 15 typically found in ESR. Extracting 50 percent of useful material from each load is the target.  The other 50 percent is currently waste, but the company hopes it can eventually find markets for that, as well. 

PRI brings in shredded material and first puts it through another shredder, then metal removal. Next comes a series of three tanks for density separation. The next step is a proprietary technology that creates a half-inch regrind that is free of labels, felt, rubber, wood, dust and other contaminants. Next is a series of six dryers and electrostatic separation. The material also goes through a color sorter, if needed. 

The output is white, black or gray flakes that are separated by ABS, PS, PP and PE. 

The new line uses Cumberland grinders, Vecoplan and SSI shredders, Gala dryers, Bunting magnetic removal equipment and a color sorter from AMVT. 

“Each box that comes out of here is 98 percent pure,” Shaw said. 

PRI’s recycling plant is 150,000 square feet and is called the State Avenue facility. The clean flake is transported to PRI’s nearby 550,000-square-feet Rockville Road compounding plant where it is blended or modified for a specific customer’s order, then extruded and turned into pellets. “We can make material from 10 percent to 100 percent recycled content,” Shaw said. 

PRI has eight extrusion lines. A 90mm twin-screw from Coperion was added as part of the ESR expansion. 

The ESR is currently going into resin compounds for many of PRI’s customers, which primarily manufacture consumer products. 

The company is currently working through the process of getting resin containing ESR certified for use in electronic plastics. “It is new,” said Josh Barrick, business development director. “It is a process to get things approved at these OEMs. We are working through that and we are working on some certifications for our material.” 

Some of the ESR material also finds its way into plastic cores for the paper industry. PRI owns a company called Recycling Technology Inc. that has 18 profile lines running that product non-stop. 

Barrick said there is adequate feedstock available within a 300-mile radius of Indianapolis plus plenty more in other parts of the country.  

Barrick estimated about 55 million tons of e-waste is generated every year worldwide. About 12 percent to 13 percent is collected and recycled. The U.S. produces about 20 percent of the world total, or about 11 million tons a year. The electronic waste companies that collect it are mostly interested in reclaiming and reselling the metal. 

“Only about 20 percent of e-waste is plastic and that includes a bunch of different mixes,” Barrick said. “That is something we can collect and turn into pellets.” 

PRI’s business model is to run trial batches of ESR material from an e-waste recycler, then decide on a price based on the yield of useful plastic resin in the batch. PRI then guarantees that price unless the useful yield declines.  

Resin demand is strong and PRI is running at full capacity, according to Barrick.  

Throughput of the ESR line could be doubled with a small investment in additional machinery, Shaw said. 

The company is currently closing on the sale of a larger building in Cowpens, S.C., to expand an operation it purchased two years ago. A second 150,000-square-foot building is also being studied for the State Avenue site in Indianapolis. 

Part of the growth is to accommodate a growing business in recycling appliance scrap, primarily refrigerators and washing machines. “We want to offer a circular economy solution for these companies as well,” Shaw said. 

For more information: Plastics Recycling Inc., 317-780-6100, 

Ron Shinn, editor

[email protected]

About the Author

Ron Shinn | Editor

Editor Ron Shinn is a co-founder of Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing and has been covering the plastics industry for more than 35 years. He leads the editorial team, directs coverage and sets the editorial calendar. He also writes features, including the Talking Points column and On the Factory Floor, and covers recycling and sustainability for PMM and Plastics Recycling.

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