Out With The Old, In With The New

We live in an age of rapidly developing technology.  A computer, which once was large enough to occupy a whole room and cost millions of dollars per single unit, is now small enough to fit in a pocket and available for less than a thousand dollars. 

While the days of the first computer may seem like the distant past for many of us, there are signs of this type of progress all around us today:  buckets full of early 2000's vintage cell phone chargers, CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) computer monitors on street corners and at garage sales, laptops and routers at the local thrift store.  Once cutting-edge technology becomes obsolete as the newest, fastest gadget replaces the old clunky device.  Electronics waste, or e-waste, is a result of the world's obsession with the latest tech and it is one of the fastest growing contributors to landfills globally, with millions of tons being added annually. 

But what happens to this e-waste stuff once the average consumer become accustomed to faster computers, smartphones, and flatscreen LCD  monitors?  For most consumers, the old replaced electronics device goes into the recycle bin or dropped off as a tax-deductible donation for charity organizations, never to be seen again.  Out of sight, out of mind.  At least for the consumer...

One Man's Trash...

What many people fail to realize is that these technological artifact still retain some value.  Not in the original sense as a product meant for an end-user, no... the true value is in how the product was made. 

Traditional metals such as steel, aluminum, and copper were/are used in the manufacture of most electronics products, and trace amounts of precious metals like gold, silver, palladium, and tantalum are present on circuit board and interface connections.    These metals are worth money and recycling them can be quite lucrative: copper is valued around $3.00 per pound, and gold is as valuable as it has always been (~$500-1600/lb.).

Sorting soda cans from empty bottles is a good comparison.  Once the initial value of these products is gone (no more liquid and no use for the remaining container), the recyclable is then categorized, separated, and redeemed for cash at a processing center (like the local supermarket). 

In the world of e-waste, the electronics device is disassembled, the parts are sorted by composition, and the lots of categorized materials are then sent to a scrap yard for cash.  Metal and plastic can both be recycled for a profit, and special materials such as motherboards are highly valued (~$3.50/lb.).     

Now, if you think that you're going to get top dollar for your decade-old Dell desktop tower, think again.  There is a significant amount of work involved in disassembly and sorting of your e-waste.  Not only will you have to do a bit of manual labor, but you will need to have a lot of it for this type of recycling to pay off.   However, for the entrepreneurs and the self-employed among us, this is a great opportunity to make a buck in this struggling economy.

Your Own Business

Any successful business starts with a solid business plan.  The e-waste recycling business is no different.  However, the business model is simple and scalable; anyone with enough time and energy to make a sizeable side income, quit their day job and work full-time, or start their own company.  It really comes down to effort and planning. 

No matter how large or small your operation will be, the basic business plan is the same:

  • Accumulate a large amount of unwanted and abandoned electronics
  • Disassemble, sort, and store the materials
  • Bring the materials down to a scrap yard for recycling and payment

 Simple, right?  That's because it is.  The only difficulty comes from how you satisfy the three points of the business.  Let's look at each in some detail.

Accumulate a large amount of old and abandoned electronics

The only way that scrapping e-waste will be worth the time involved is if you have a continuous stream of material to recycle.  It is not a good idea to rely on driving around the wealthy neighborhoods the day before trash pickup and scouting for old computers; you'll end up spending more on gas and time looking for the stuff than you will ever end up profiting from it.

A better solution is to become the solution.  Computer stores, IT companies, repair shops, and other places that acquire a lot of excess high-end consumer electronics typically have problems with getting rid of their waste.  Call these companies (acting as professional and courteous as possible) to offer a pickup service.  They have more space, you have more profitable e-waste, everyone wins. 

You will need a cargo-capable vehicle able to transport this e-waste to your storage space.   A pickup truck or a van are great to load up CRTs, computer towers, circuit boards, and whatever else you may find worth scrapping.  Ideally, a trailer or a commercial truck would be adequate for most small companies. 

In addition to the vehicle, a place to store the materials is necessary.  If you are just beginning, I would suggest using an unoccupied room or garage space as you figure out how much room you'll need.  You will also need a space to work, as you will soon see. 

Disassemble, Sort, And Store The Materials

Once you've driven all over town and picked up the e-waste, you will need to bring it to a workspace.  To get the most money out of your e-waste stockpile, your materials will need to be disassembled and sorted by type.  There are many tutorials and forum posts on the Internet that go into detail of what is valuable in specific e-waste parts.  However, to give a quick overview of what is worth your time: wire, cables, circuit boards, power supplies, hard drives and CD/DVD drives, towers, heatsinks, plastic shell casing, fans - all of this can be removed and sorted for maximum profit.

The amount of work involved in disassembly varies depending on the device, but most jobs do not require anything more than screwdrivers, wire clippers, sorting bins/boxes, and a table.  A desktop computer tower can be disassembled in minutes with a Philips screwdriver.  Garbage cans are relatively cheap and can hold a lot of sorted material, which is what you'll need for the next step in your business plan.

You can separate your materials in a variety of categories.  Here's a short list:

  • Wire
  • Motherboards, expansion cards, router circuit boards
  • Plastic housing (ABS plastic)
  • Power Supplies
  • CD/DVD Drives
  • RAM and CPUs

IMPORTANT:  Many e-waste items are worth more on eBay sold as "For Parts/Not Working" than they would ever be worth as scrap.   Tested RAM (1GB and above) is in demand.  Many routers only require a simple reset or firmware upgrade in order to be resold as functional units.  Laptops, working or otherwise, are quite popular internationally.  Do a quick search on eBay for "Gold Fingers" for an idea of alternative ways of monetizing that e-waste!

Bring The Materials Down To The Scrap Yard For Recycling And Payment

Once your e-waste is disassembled and sorted, you are going to want to profit from your hard work.  Take a day off from manual labor and start to do some research on scrap yards in your area (actually, this should be one of the first things that you do before you decide to start this business).  Perform a couple of Google searches for "scrap metal recycling", "e-waste recycle",  and "scrap yard".  You should have a couple of leads on places you can visit locally to turn your e-waste into money.  Make sure to call these places to ask about general procedure, what materials they purchase, pricing, and hours.  Do some due diligence and search on scrap metal forums to check out these companies' reputations.   Ignorance will not make you money, as you learn in this business.

Once you decide on a scrap yard, bring your sorted e-waste down to their facility.  You will have your items reviewed by an employee of the scrap yard and then each material will be individually weighed.  Be sure to pay attention at this point because your weights determine how much you get paid.  This is also the point where you can get screwed, so be on your toes.  

If all goes well, you should get a check or cash that day when all is said and done (policies vary from scrap yard to scrap yard).  You may very well be surprised how much all of that e-waste was worth - my first time was an eye-opening experience.

That's the whole business!  Rinse and repeat!


Please remember that this is only a brief guide and you should do your research and planning well before you decide this is something that you want to do.  Recycling e-waste can be fun and rewarding, while benefiting the environment.  I guarantee that you'll never look at a computer the same way ever again!