Earth Day 2014: Be Green With Your Cable Box And Get Gold

There are all kinds of precious metals in our electronics–here's how to get the gold back when you decide to upgrade your tech.

Tomorrow’s Earth Day will focus on the importance of making cites greener and smarter, as urban populations continue to grow at impressive rates.

A more environmentally friendly city starts with greener homes, which is helped by taking a fresh look on everyday objects in the home. Cable is a center point in the daily American life, but very few of us look at our televisions and literally see gold. The cable box gets a bit rusty, your screen appears to shrink over time, and so the day comes when you trade up for newer goods. Out goes the set-top box, television, and the plethora of associated wires, and all of it gets dumped for collection by the rubbish truck. It’s just one messy chunk of metal and plastic after all.

“no one will be able to send [their waste] overseas”

Or not. Here’s another option: recycle your cable products and get rewarded in the shape of precious metals. True, it won’t make you rich, but you will be reducing environmental pressures—and you may just get some token gold leaf out of it.

Electronics recycling and precious metals extraction has become easier because of a proliferation of businesses in the U.S. designed to do exactly this. These groups are tapping into a growing market, brought about by stronger government regulations in the United States on industries that have a long history of shipping their waste to other countries with less restrictive standards, like Africa and China. Eighty percent of American electronic waste reaches these distant lands and gets dumped in landfills, with toxic side effects for the environment and the people doing the dirty work.

Roughly 80 million homes in the US have cable TV, and consequently, the number of set-top boxes that will eventually be discarded are in the millions too

However, “within five years,” estimates industry professional Cody Schneider from CJ Environmental Inc., a recycling and precious metals refinery in Massachusetts, “no one will be able to send [their waste] overseas.”

So, take a closer look at the television and cable box. What’s in your equipment? How do you recycle it? And just how much extra cash might you glean in the process?

Sourcing the Waste

Electronic goods up make the fastest-growing portion of the solid waste stream in the U.S., a symptom of the never-ending quest for newer iPads, updated phones, computers, and televisions. Roughly 80 million homes in the US have cable TV, and consequently, the number of set-top boxes that will eventually be discarded are in the millions too. But enough with the guilt tripping: the country’s recycling outfits also provide a growing collection point for all that trash.

Cable goods account for between 10 and 30 percent of the material that electronics recycling outfits receive. Schneider hedges that of the cable waste his business takes in, 50 percent comes from industries—and the other 50 from the general public.

These recycling joints process goods on a large scale, the cable box, cable card, chords, and television you contribute will be lumped together with another few of thousand products. This is where the transformative journey begins.

Recycling crews are equipped either with the know-how to pick through a mass of circuit boards

Sorting it All

Products arriving at the plant become part of an extensive army of decommissioned goods destined to meet different ends. Peter Muscanelli, another expert from Colt Recycling (which also happens to be featured in a History Channel TV series called Boneyard-Electric), says, “The refinery itself is equipped with processing ovens and melting furnaces that are interfaced with after-burners, cooling towers, dust collectors, and bag houses.”

Picking the right machinery here for the job depends on the material that’s being refined. That’s where a keen eye—or a metal decoder—comes in. Recycling crews are equipped either with the know-how to pick through a mass of circuit boards and other components and sort the metal into categories, or a scanning gun reminiscent of Tron, which tells them each piece of equipment’s metallic content.

A cable box gets you two dollars

Gold, silver, platinum, palladium, and copper all hide among the ore of potential bounties to be mined from our discarded cell phone of yesteryear. But in cable products, circuit boards are where it’s at. “The circuit board material has precious metal content that can be recovered along with copper and other metals,” Muscanelli says. Mostly, refiners extract copper (a benchmark semi-precious metal) from these products. The largest portion of precious metal they manage to scrape out of circuit boards is in the form of silver, followed by gold.

Not much of it though. Cable cards are comparatively precious metal-rich for their size, yet they only generate—hold your horses—about 25-50 cents worth of the stuff. A cable box gets you two dollars. That might not sound like a whole lot of moolah, but remember there are millions of cable cards and boxes in the U.S.

The refinement by smelting can take up to five days

The Big Crush and Strip

Refining metals into cool pellets of silver and gold can take upwards of two weeks when professionals are dealing with a large batch—say 2,000-5,000 pieces—of electronic waste. That’s because precious metal extraction boils down to a fine and complicated science, literally.

The process for extrapolating the good stuff involves crushing and incineration, which means that metal components are melted, cooled, and then ground up into what Schneider calls a “sandy type of material” inside the ball mill—a machine that looks vaguely medieval with its vibrating steel balls that pulverize the ashy remnants into a fine talcum.

Stripping is also an option, whereby goods like circuit boards are dipped into a chemical bath that reacts with other ingredients to separate gold, silver, and other metals.

In both cases, further refinement is needed, and that’s when the experts figure out how much valuable content a batch of pulverized or chemically separated metal contains. They then produce a precious metals estimate that results in a quote to the client telling them how much their electronic-waste contribution is actually worth.

Refining—and the Payout

The refinement by smelting can take up to five days. A token batch of the ball-milled powder, for instance, gets placed in a funneled cup and put in an intensely hot oven. With the addition of “flux” material, which attracts the precious metals, the good metal slips away from the undesirable content, sinking to the bottom of the cup. What’s left after a bit more smelting and evaporation is a shining, precious metal ball. Once these precious beads have been tested for its metallic content, and the client is given a quote based on this reading, it gets sent off together with the rest of the batch for further refining at a special facility.

And that is how your cable card, box, and television becomes part of a gold bar.

The plastic and non-precious metal husks left behind are also recycled, Schneider explains. “Our main goal was to keep this going in a greener direction,” he says. Muscanelli agrees: “Recycling should be considered important in any industry. It just makes sense.”