e-waste, Opinion

Coming full Sircel

Sircel is a green-technology company whose primary focus is the eradication of electronic waste from landfill. Driven by the need to do its part in creating a circular economy, the company is run by Anthony Karam. A former corporate lawyer, Karam started on this journey in 2017 after experiencing the enormous e-waste dumps of West Africa. That, coupled with his past experience, lit a fire within him to find a better way of dealing with e-waste.

Currently Australia generates one of the highest amounts of e-waste per capita in the world – 21kgs per person.

Angie Bradbury is Sircel’s marketing director, and these are busy times for the resource regeneration business. It has recently bought the assets of Scipher Technologies, one of the early pioneers of e-waste recycling in Australia. This acquisition means Sircel is stepping up a gear or two, becoming he most significant player in the Australian e-waste space.

“We’re thrilled to take on the processing facilities of Scipher in Melbourne and ensure the capability is not lost to the sector,” said Bradbury. “This acquisition, along with our other sites in Parkes (NSW), Villawood (Sydney) and a recently opened site in Yatala (Qld) means that Sircel is now the largest player in the e-waste space.”

With substantial plant and machinery now under its purview, is there enough e-waste to keep Sircel busy? Absolutely, said Bradbury.

“There’s still a lot of education needed about e-waste and what happens to it. Still today, a significant percentage of e-waste collected is being shipped overseas or sent to landfill with only a small amount of its value recovered,” said Bradbury. “Sircel’s spent the best part of a decade, and tens of millions of dollars developing a large-scale, end-to-end process that sees up to 100 per cent of the valuable commodities extracted and returned to the circular economy. It’s a game-changer.

“We’re particularly excited about Sircel’s newly acquired capability to process TVs with our new bespoke plant equipment, as it adds increased capacity to our solutions. Importantly, it also means that Sircel will continue the important conversations with the Victorian EPA on the establishment of Australia’s first solar panel processing capability at our Parkes facility in NSW, situated in the designated Recycling Special Activation Precinct.”

While there is a lot of excitement about expanding its business, Sircel is also aware that – like most companies in the resource recovery sector – it needs whole-of-system buy-in to make it really work. Not just processors like themselves, but government and communities, too. It succinctly outlined some of the barriers to a circular economy, but also suggested solutions, in April 2024 in a submission to the Waste Reduction and Recycling Senate Enquiry.

In part, it said:

Electronic waste (e-waste) should be treated as its own discreet category – no longer rolled up in a broader “waste” discussion. End of life electronics may have no perceived value as a scrap mobile phone or decommissioned telecommunications exchange, but these devices hold valuable metals and materials that can and should be returned to the circular economy. The Australian Government (and State Governments) need to urgently establish a single, nationally consistent, legislative and policy framework for the treatment of e-waste.

The lack of consistent regulatory frameworks, changes in licencing standards from state to state and inconsistent application of government grants and programs do not provide a long-term, risk-managed environment to provide certainty for the massive investment in plant and technology needed to solve this crisis.

The framework should ensure accreditation (and auditing) of standards to ensure that feasible alternatives exist, we are dealing with our waste stream within Australia, and parties are not finding loopholes to ship the problem overseas. The framework needs to support the sustainable and circular economy options to manage waste, not leave open the cheapest and most environmentally damaging options, such as landfill or the wallets of underdeveloped nations in the region.

Bradbury gives a practical example of one product that could benefit from such legislation – copper. At the recent Impact X Summit held in Sydney in April, Sircel CEO Karam gave the audience a rundown of how much copper is thrown away.

“In 2022 there was 62 million tonnes of e-waste generated globally,” he said. “Our statistics tell us that about 13 per cent of general e-waste is copper. That means 8.6 million tonnes of copper was potentially thrown away as waste in 2022. The world only mined 21 million tonnes of copper, in 2022 so 36 per cent of global copper that was mined that year was potentially buried as waste. That’s about AUD$133 billion at current prices.”

If there was legislation around how such costly elements need to be recovered, then the resource would not end up in the ground.

Then there is the controversial National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS). Thought by a large sector of the resource recovery industry as outdated – not least because of what it doesn’t include in the scheme – there has been some (slight) movement with it recently.

“The federal government’s extension of the NTCRS scheme to include small electrical appliances is a good start,” said Bradbury. “The amount of waste that’s currently the obligation of the manufacturer that is under the scheme will expand by about six or seven times. That’s a good thing.”

However, legislation aside, Bradbury is a big fan of education – getting consumers not to think of resources such as electronic goods as waste. She goes so far as to say that we should get rid of the word waste altogether for the category and refer to the recoverable parts as resources.

“The key thing for us is that people need to be asking better questions about what happens to their discarded electronics,” she said. “Just because you put it in a bin or a bag at the zoo or a designated ‘recycling’ bin, it doesn’t mean it’s going to end up in the right place. We need greater transparency.

“We need to be able to track what’s happening with e-waste all the way through the process. And we absolutely need to do a better job at shutting down the bad faith actors.”

Practical considerations
From a practical aspect, people also need to get their head around how e-waste is broken apart. Bradbury said it’s not only impractical, but uneconomical, to disassemble parts manually. Sircel has invested in mechanical processes right from the beginning, with no manual dismantling apart from triage of batteries and any non-recyclable materials that may be present. They then use a range of source separators to extract the varying metals.

“The e-waste is triaged, and we take out things like lithium-ion batteries before they go through the processing facility,” she said. “You’ll get tonnes of waste at a time going straight into the shredder and going through the plant in less than 50 minutes.”

And Sircel’s Parkes site is huge. It has the capacity to process about 20 tonnes of product a day. Bradbury believes that if people could see the scale of the operation, they would realise how big this e-waste stream is compared to what they think it might be.

“When people imagine e-waste facilities, I think they see some guys with screwdrivers sitting around dismantling things,” she said. “If they could see the Sircel facility they’d see these massive hook bins of e-waste being delivered, then tonnes of product being tipped into the top of a hopper.

“Once in the hopper, the product goes through a series of size reduction and separation processes that will reduce the e-waste eventually down to less than a one-millimetre fraction, separated into various streams. Magnetic separation of ferrous material sends steel back to the steel industry and further separation of non-ferrous material provides aluminium back to the aluminium industry. The importance of recycling these metals is beyond just resources, consider that these are two highly energy intensive industries where turning virgin iron or aluminium ores into metals produces considerable CO2 footprints.”

When it comes to end markets, Bradbury says vendors are ready and willing buyers of the recovered commodities, which brings up an interesting point from Bradbury.

“We’ve got to stop thinking about the cheapest economic solution and start thinking about the best solution,” she said.

“You can compare the costs of mining a tonne of virgin copper, versus extracting a tonne of copper out of cables from telecommunications sites. With the latter, we pull the cable out, take the plastic off the outside, and use our copper granulator to produce high-grade copper. There’s some labour required to extract the cables onsite, some transport costs, and less than an hour to move through the processing plant to spit out the copper at the other end.

“Compare that to digging a massive hole in the ground – the environmental, processing, logistical and management costs – it means it’s substantially better to extract it from e-waste than to dig it out of the ground.”

Then, as mentioned, there is the educational aspect. Not just explaining the wrongs and rights of putting e-waste into landfill or not processing it properly, but also how other avenues can save local councils money in the long run.

Bradbury references several councils in regional NSW that had a waste contractor collecting their e-waste via a scheme funded by the state government. However, that funding did not cover both logistical and processing costs, leaving the councils out of pocket and with no ethical solution to processing e-waste.

After hearing this, Sircel hosted the regional NSW councils at their Parkes facility, and offered to process the e-waste if they could cover the costs of shipping.

“We knew exactly how much e-waste they’d been generating over the past three years. We did some sums for them regarding current landfill costs in New South Wales. If they sent it to landfill, it was going to cost them $18,000. Whereas if they engaged us to pick it up from them three times a year, it was going to cost them $4,500.

“Councillors have got to understand that they’ve got an obligation to their ratepayers to do the right thing, and to invest in a better solution. That’s the education piece we have to do. Every time we get to engage with a regional local council, the responses that we get when we bring them out to the plant is overwhelmingly positive.”

A site visit proves that Sircel is here to make better possible.

A “better” future is one where e-waste means no waste at all. And to make this future a reality, real activation and agitation for change at a policy and legislative level needs to happen now.

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