Apr 23, 2020|General

Years ago, we put little consideration into adequately disposing of electronics and other potentially hazardous materials. Thankfully there are many responsible companies out there trying to do their part by setting PCB recycling standards and raising the bar for environmental protection. 

If your business uses printed circuit boards, you might enjoy knowing that you can recycle some of the components of the board, but not the entire thing. Pcb board recycling applies primarily to the copper, and it’s a valuable component if you understand how the recycling process works.   

Can PCBs Be Recycled?

If there was a simple answer to this, we’d love to give it to you, but it’s a bit more complicated. The answer is both yes and no. You can partially recycle PCBs because you can only recover the copper and FR-4, and only the copper will retain enough purity to get reused. 

The fiberglass has likely degraded in quality over time and will not get recycled, but you can downcycle it. This process means you’ll reuse it for a low-tech application like building insulation. 

How Are PCBs Recycled?

Now that we understand that PCB ballast recycling is possible, it’s important to understand the methods we can use to recycle them. There are three primary ways, and each of them possesses its own set of ups and downs. Let’s take a look. 

Thermal Recovering

For this process, you must heat the PCB to a high temperature to recover the metals present on the board. Thermal recovery will incinerate the FR-4 but retain the copper. You can use this method if you choose, but it will create harmful gases in the air like lead and dioxin. 

Chemical Recovering

Here you will use a bed of acid to recover the metal from the PCB. The board gets put into the acid, which destroys the FR-4 again, and it also creates a large quantity of wastewater that needs treatment before you can dispose of it properly. 

Physical Recovering

This process involves the shredding, smashing, breaking, and separating of the metal from non-metal components. While this method does have the least environmental impact, there are still some downsides. 

It’s a hazard for everyone working around the PCB because you’re sending dust, metal, and glass particles into the air, which can lead to respiratory issues if exposed for prolonged periods. This method does retain all the metal components, though.

How to Recycle Recovered Copper from Printed Circuit Boards

PCB manufacturers are always seeking new ways to recycle the copper from their PCBs. Here are some ways that copper is reclaimed:

Edge Trim

Using a stripping solution allows you to recycle the copper from the edge trim. You’ll first separate it by shredding the trim and following it with a cyclone separator to break the copper away. 

Wastewater Sludge

Heat the wastewater to around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, which created copper oxide. Once you’ve done this, you’ll use a smelter to turn that into copper metal. 

Used Basic Etching Solution

Produce copper hydroxide using a weak acidic condition and conduct the same process as in the wastewater sludge example. This method allows you to recover any leftover copper with ion exchange resins. 

Hot Air Leveling

For this process, you’ll create tin solder dross by separating the tin in a furnace of up to 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Additional Research

There is always additional research going into the PCB recycling process and how we can recover more of these precious metals. Some of which include: 

* Metal separation technology

* Developing more innovative recycled products

These methods focus on the recycling and recovery of copper and other metals. PCB recycling prices have increased due to supply and demand. While there is a lot of demand, the market for this is still quite small. Most printed circuit boards end up in a landfill. 

What You Can Recycle from Printed Circuit Boards

During the recovery process, you will try to maintain and keep as much of the metal as possible. You might like to know what you can keep and what will either get ruined or require disposal. Here is a list of all the parts you can recycle from a printed circuit board. 

* Copper from the edge trim

* Copper oxide from treatment sludge

* Copper from the etching solution

* Copper hydroxide from the plated through holes process

* Copper from the rack stripping process

* Copper from the solder stripping process

* Tin from the hot air leveling process

How to Make PCBs More Recyclable

We’re always trying to reduce our environmental impact by recycling more and more electronic components, but unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do to increase the recyclability of a PCB. There isn’t anything currently available to us that will allow the recycling process to become any easier or more effective. 

Many think that using SMD components compared to THT will make it easier to separate the board, but this will have a small impact if any. 

The good news is that the energy from a circuit comes from the internal components rather than the PCB, so we don’t have too much to worry about. 

Conclusion

To recap, yes, you can recycle PCBs but not every component of them. The main recycling parts of the copper and tin that you recover from the printed circuit board using some of the methods outlined above. 

Many of these methods also harm the environment, and some of them are hazardous to the health of the operators that do them. Recycling PCBs makes sense for sustainability and productivity. To make the most out of the recycling process, it’s suggested that we use physical recovery as our primary method because we’re using renewable energy.

We all have a role in protecting the environment, so always remember that no impact is too small. If you’re in need of a source for PCB manufacturing, consider visiting our website or giving us a call today to discuss. Our customers benefit from our unique process, paired with our customer-first attitude.

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