Scrap bare PCBs (i.e. unpopulated PCBs) contain small amounts of copper that can be recycled. The amount of gold, silver, or tin in them is usually tiny. The FR4 epoxy glass laminate which makes up the bulk of the bare PCB cannot be recycled back to its constituents. So it is only the copper content which has any value.
PCBs have to be consolidated into reasonable bulk amounts 50 to 100kg perhaps to make recycling economical, otherwise, freight costs will exceed the scrap value of the metal recovered. Scrap metal merchants will purchase scrap of this type. We have one collection every few months when all our recycled waste is collected in one combined lot to minimise freight costs.
Recycling a Populated Printed Circuit Board
If the PCB is populated with components, then there is more material with the possibility of recycling. Besides copper, there may be Gold, Silver, Platinum and Palladium within the component themselves.
The amount of precious metals per PCB is usually very small. Although there may appear to be a lot of gold material on the tracks, it is actually very thin immersion plated gold, being only around 0.1 micron thick. Offered buy prices are as low as just 5p to 10p per kilogram of scrap populated PCBs. This means that several hundred kilograms of scrap PCBs are needed to make recycling PCBs economical, despite the moral imperative to do so.
Other Uses for Printed Circuit Boards
Direct recycling of scrap unpopulated PCBs themselves into other products is possible (beer mats, picture frames), but this only occurs on a very small scale. The process is laborious and the finished products are problematic. In order to make a beer mat for instance from a scrap PCB, suitable source material has to be hand sorted and rough cut to a standard shape. Blanks must be drilled and pinned for CNC routing. After routing, edges must be de-burred since where the router cuts through a hole since a razor sharp metal shard may be left. The safety and look and feel of such finished products is dubious.
Can Printed Circuit Boards be Reused?
Pulling parts off PCBs and recycling the components for use again as functional parts is not practical or economical. The parts are easy to damage and they would need retesting to ensure they still worked. Such parts would be of poor quality and the labour costs of recycling would be huge compared with bulk produced new parts. Most parts now need to be taped and reeled. Trying to re-tape and reel parts pulled off old circuit boards is completely impractical because of the cost.
Our Recycling Process
Finally, just a note about how we deal with waste in our PCB production process here at Newbury. We recycle as much as we can from our manufacturing process. We recycle used drills, aluminium entry board, MDF backing board, scrap laminate, spent etchant, used chemicals, scrap tin, scrap copper, scrap steel, scrap equipment, and cardboard. Anything not recyclable is incinerated to produce electricity. Any waste water from the manufacturing process is filtered before discharge.