PGM Refiners is evolving as the nature of the e-waste it recovers changes. It has prepared for the future by opening Australia’s first BluBox plant.
Built from an idea its co-founder had as a second year chemical engineering undergraduate, in the last 10 years, PGM Refiners has become one of Australia’s most respected and innovative e-waste recyclers.
Chief Technology Officer Karvan Jayaweera had every right to feel proud at the latest milestone in his company’s short history when VIPs and industry stakeholders gathered for the opening of its BluBox recycling unit at its Dandenong facility in January.
Designed to process the likes of LCD flat panel units, the BluBox is the latest piece of PGM’s innovative machinery at a site that is designed for the safe, environmentally-friendly and responsible recovery of end-of-life electronics.
The perceived value of bringing the BluBox to Australia also led to another development. Late in 2015, PGM was backed by the national hazardous waste solutions specialist, Toxfree, who is now the majority shareholder.
Toxfree’s General Manager, Technical and Environmental Service, Dr. Karl Baltpurvins, explains the value for the business in partnering with PGM.
“For Toxfree we viewed e-waste as a growing sector supported by a product stewardship scheme that, in our view, presented a robust, long-term growth opportunity,” he says. “The Blubox represented a best practice recycling technology that supported the emerging sector.”
A mechanical recycling hub
When Karvan founded PGM Refiners in May 2006, it was with a view to refining precious metals from printed circuit boards. However, his research found there was not enough volume of this product to make it viable.
It was then decided to focus on recycling end-of-life CRT (cathode ray tube) televisions and monitors instead. At that time, there was low resource recovery from CRT monitors, as they are bulky, contain hazardous materials, and inefficient to process manually.
“We didn’t want to do it in a traditional way,” explains Karvan. PGM wanted a high capacity process, so looked to design an end-to-end, mechanical e-waste recycling system.
“CRT is a very problematic waste stream – we identified that if we could design the process around recycling CRT products, extracting the glass, metal and plastic commodities safely and quickly, everything else would come into line,” adds Karvan.
At the same time, the company was looking for the perfect location for its processing hub. The Dandenong facility fitted the bill for several reasons.
“The building is large with plenty of space for storage and accepting product,” says Karvan. “And Dandenong is the ideal location because it’s just outside metropolitan Melbourne, with access to the volumes of product we need to be viable. “We’re right next to the freeway, just off the Eastlink, making it easy for logistics, and in a major industrial hub.”
As PGM was getting established, it proved a good time to be in the e-waste recycling business. The company was just commissioning its semi-automated CRT processing line when legislation was passed for the National Computer Television Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) in 2011. This introduced funding and promotion to encourage the responsible recycling of primarily CRT TVs, which were being thrown out in their thousands due to the digital switchover.
From humble beginnings and with some good timing, the business flourished. It now employs 24 people.
E-waste’s path through the plant
PGM takes and processes e-waste from what the NTCRS co-regulatory arrangement, TechCollect, and other specialist e-waste collectors amass from businesses and the community. The company also works direct with councils to take e-waste from landfill facilities and transfer stations.
The product comes in mainly from around Victoria, although if logistics can be organised cost-effectively, it can reach out to New South Wales and Queensland.
The incoming material first passes on to the site’s weighbridge and then goes into the main warehouse, where the contents are unloaded. Employees then undertake a primary manual sort to divide the e-waste into categories, such as CRT units, flat panel displays, printers and IT peripherals. Products with batteries or an ink cartridge are removed to be processed separately.
The sorted e-waste then goes through PGM Refiners’ custom-built semi-automated processing line, which recovers resources through a combination of crushing, density separation, magnetic separation and X-ray sorting.
“Our process is unique because we can separate CRT products mechanically and safely – preventing the leakage of its lead and other toxic material – which gives us good quality glass outputs,” explains Karvan.
The process sees above 90 per cent of resources recovered. It reclaims the circuit boards, plastics, scrap metal and different grades of copper, as well as separating the funnel glass and panel glass.
Although CRT televisions and monitors are still the main items recycled, along with computers and IT peripherals, its process can handle a wide variety of e-waste.
“Our facility can recycle anything with a power cord,” says Karvan.
Once the materials are separated and bagged into commodities, local and international manufacturers buy most of the product, while a small amount is sold on to downstream recyclers for further processing.
“A plastics manufacturer takes our recovered plastic to make new plastic products, while our metals go to local and overseas recyclers, who process them further in foundaries, refineries and smelters.”
A key part of the PGM Refiners process is its dedication to the highest environmental and safety standards in its operations.
The company was ahead of the curve in committing to meeting the highest international standards of recycling, handling and environmental management of hazardous waste, proving its credentials ahead of federal and state government requirements to do so. Among the certifications it holds are ISO 9001:2008 and ISO 14001:2004 and R2.
However, rather than being an advantage, the extra investment and resource inherent in meeting these standards means they can be undercut in the market by rogue operators that don’t abide by the same principles.
PGM is supported by the NTCRS, primarily through its partnership with TechCollect, while other sources of income are from the fees it charges to handle items outside the scheme and from selling on the recovered commodities. However, at the moment, the commodity market slump has cut the amount of revenue being realised.
Karvan also cites differences in standards of recycling across the country as putting huge strains on ethical, accredited recyclers, like PGM, with some cutting corners to balance the books.
“I think the main challenge at the moment is having a level playing field with recyclers of end-of-life products working to the same standard… most do, but some don’t,” explains Karvan. “Some unscrupulous recyclers out there are exporting, and that’s our biggest competition. That product could and should be recycled in Australia.”
Nevertheless, PGM Refiners is pushing on optimistically. Karvan says joining Toxfree has given PGM access to useful resources, such as marketing and support services, to a national network expanding its reach, vital experience in the waste industry and to experts in hazardous waste management.
All these factors are supporting the business into its next phase, which includes leveraging its new BluBox technology.
The BluBox project
PGM Refiners is the exclusive distributor of the Swiss-made BluBox in Australia and one of only seven companies in the world to have it.
The BluBox is an integrated plant for recycling the next emerging problem waste stream: mixed lamps and LCD flat panel screens that contain mercury.
A dry treatment process, it comprises an in-built mechanical crushing system and multi-step separation. Working under negative pressure, it has a built-in aspiration system that safely extracts the mercury vapour and contaminated phosphor, while outputting the valuable commodities – protecting the environment and employees.
It can process one tonne of flat panel displays per hour, which is the equivalent of over 2,100 tonnes a year based on eight-hour day, five-day working weeks.
The PGM team started looking into the BluBox to fit in with its operations in August 2014. Support from the Victorian Government and Sustainability Victoria helped the firm achieve its ambition of securing the BluBox for Australia.
“What we are trying to do with the BluBox is secure our business for the future,” says Karvan. “The CRT products will soon dry up, whereas the BluBox is for the new generation of e-waste, as we’re anticipating a huge wave of LCD screens next, which includes TVs, monitors, laptops, tablets and smart phones.”
The BluBox arrived on site this past October and was commissioned in November. The commissioning process proved slightly nerve wracking, as the team was worried the machine wouldn’t fit in the factory at one point, but once it was installed, the planning came together.
PGM and Toxfree hosted an official launch for the plant on 22 January, with Victorian Environment Minister Lisa Neville on hand to open it.
“The opening was a proud moment for all of us because it had been a massive team effort, with everyone working towards the same aim,” says Karvan. “For a small team to get it off the ground was a big achievement.”
The BluBox can process anything except CRT products, including fluorescent lamps.
PGM does have plans for future expansion. However, as the BluBox can process such large volumes, for now the focus is on building awareness of this new capability to secure more flat screens and e-waste through the facility.
So far flat panels are being seen more as a future waste stream, though PGM is seeing an increase in volume each month.
“With the BluBox, we’re able to offer a safe recycling solution not just to the community, but to other recyclers,” adds Karvan. “It will be a huge benefit to Victoria’s e-waste management challenge.”