By Steven Bathori

 

The gold (or silver, or palladium) rush of the e-waste processing industry, cue the 1960-2000 era, is all but done and dusted; literally.

 

Components recycled today contain fewer precious metals than ever before. This, despite the overall number of electronic devices tripling since the turn of the century.

 

Extinction is a real possibility for e-waste businesses that don’t evolve in this new world. An ounce of gold from one tonne of PCs?  Not in 2020. 

 

Thus, the shift in the e-waste processing industry has allowed a new value chain to evolve. 

 

The latest PCs are manufactured cost effectively and older PCs, well, as I said earlier, are done and dusted.

 

Companies often launch into e-waste recycling looking at data from, at the earliest, 2000. In 2000, one tonne of computers, or a tonne of cell phones, had an obscene amount of precious metals built in. 

 

This media “sound-byte” drove many to jump into e-waste without first understanding the complexities involved. These companies are no longer with us.

With the rapid influx of new, cheaper raw materials, even long standing pillars of the e-waste industry are having to cope with a lower value waste stream that is negatively affecting the bottom line.

The main issue the industry faces today is that new components look the same as the old avatars, but have far less value; to the point where some new RAM can either be gold-plated, or coated with a brass/gold alloy that is very convincing to the eye, but is worth less than the copper it contains.

 

New IC chips are being made with bond wire that is 1/80th the thickness and 1/5th the purity of the gold bond wire used just six years ago.

 

What does this mean? Why should anyone care?

 

The price list being used by thousands of e-waste collectors and consolidators is incorrect.  

 

In fact, we conducted a blind study asking top e-waste collectors for a price on a material – telecom boards – we had assayed earlier. 

 

We then sent 10 photographs of these various telecom boards to 10 different procurement experts and six responded. 

 

The results were shocking.

The material we showed them had a total independent assay value of €4.98/kg. 

 

This means that the total metals, including gold, silver, platinum, palladium, tin, copper, and lead that could be extracted from these boards would gross €4,982.24/t of boards processed. 

 

Prices quoted by leading recyclers were all above €5/kg, with the highest quoting €10.30/kg. 

 

This means regardless of what they try to extract, all six companies would have been net negative on the material purchase. (The material was not sold to any of these companies.)

What’s the answer? 

 

Four years ago, our company began work on assaying thousands of circuit boards and taking photographs of every board and every category of e-waste therein. We then began using machine learning to find metals inside images of mixed materials. The idea is to accurately identify the class of e-waste being assessed.

 

After 200k hours of computer training time, we created the first ever, AI-based, machine learning, computer vision system to correctly identify and classify numerous categories of e-waste. 

 

The system, which we call ViewPas, is now in the hands of several collectors, traders, processors, recyclers and refiners. It’s been tested against 180,000 random images and has a 95pc+ accuracy in identifying the correct assay values of the material in any photo.

 

It’s able to show the user expected metal extraction values and offers an AI-based price which is calculated on fair market value, after deductions. It offers immediate quotation results using assay data and market comparative pricing from competitors. 

 

ViewPas assures each stakeholder a profit.

 

At first it was difficult to explain, as expectations of the value of e-waste were extremely high. However, companies we now deal with are transitioning from using old-fashioned price lists and clipboards, to becoming completely dynamic with the process.

 

Metal value pricing from e-waste now follows the market less. But, with ViewPas, it is able to offer more in terms of fair pricing to all parties. The Pfane Environmental Association believes that this will help modernise and equalise profits for every stakeholder involved in e-waste today

 

The ViewPas system used to be the industry’s best kept secret. Now, it’s the must-have device to evolve and stay profitable in the e-waste business.

 

Steven Bathori is vice-president of global sales at Pfane Scientific S.R.L./Pfane Environmental Association and is based in Romania.

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