Camston Wrather co-founders Aaron Kamenash and Mark Evans didn’t set out to revolutionize electronic waste recycling. The original idea was to bring sustainability practices to the mining industry.
“We wanted to clean up the Southwest and do all the reclamation and everything,” Kamenash said. “But then we realized much more of a problem e-waste was compared to what’s out in the desert and how it affects the world globally, so we decided to pivot.”
In addition to a desire to a desire to help solve a global problem, recycling e-waste also proved to be more valuable.
“In a virgin mine, an entire ton of ore only has about one gram of gold. One ton of electronic waste can have between 100 to 200 grams on average,” Kamenash said, adding that some boards are even richer in precious metals – one ton of Tesla circuit boards can produce 900 grams of gold, for example.
Profitable, Sustainable Business Model
For the last nine and half years and utilizing around $100 million in private financing, Camston Wrather developed a system to 100% recycle circuit boards by extracting their precious metals and minerals and creating a reusable polymer from the remaining material.
This spring, the company will officially cut the ribbon on its full-scale, 120,000-square-foot e-waste recycling plant located in East Carlsbad, which Kamenash described as a “first of its kind.”
The facility is already running at full capacity, processing between 4,000 and 5,000 pounds an hour for 14 hours a day. The circuit boards sent to the Carlsbad facility come from six downstream recycling centers located in important regions across the country that do whole unit disassembly of everything from cell phones and tablets to data center equipment and even old missiles from the Department of Defense.
“The variety of material that we end up encountering is fascinating,” said Douglas Paulin, chief financial officer for Camston Wrather.
That variety of material produces the precious metals and minerals – gold, silver, copper, palladium, cobalt, rhodium, radium and more – that allow the business model to work. The polymer produced with the remaining materials is also sold for use in laminate flooring, concrete and other materials.
“Other recycling waste streams in the past have struggled to have profitable business models,” Paulin said. “The nice thing about our company is we have that balance of not only having the opportunity to making a substantial environmental impact, but also be profitable.”
In addition to the money made from recovering precious metals and minerals, Camston Wrather’s business model also includes offering onsite e-waste shredding services and the company is also currently in the process of adding itself to the carbon offset credit market through Vera.
The substantial environmental impact of the facility is a 90% more carbon-friendly way to extract the same volume of materials compared to mining or the current recycling practice of smelting e-waste. The
“And we’re over 92% more water efficient. There’s no water waste from the plant – everything gets recycled and reused,” Paulin said.
Legislation Could Accelerate Adoption
Current e-waste recycling programs, which sometimes involve sending the waste to developing countries that either smelt it down in toxic burn pits or bury it in landfills, have prompted California legislators to look for more sustainable solutions.
A current bill making its way through the legislature, SB-568, would force companies that are currently exporting electronic waste to first check with existing recycling organizations in California to see if there is capacity within the state to recycle the waste before exporting it.
“The goal of the bill is to create a better, more transparent system and ensure – to the extent that it’s possible – that these activities take place in California, and if they do, you have the added benefit of all the precious metals and raw materials coming back into the economy in a more efficient way,” said Sen. Josh Newman, a sponsor of the bill.
The amount of metals and raw materials that could come back into the economy is a significant opportunity for Camston Wrather. According to a 2019 report from the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) and the U.N. E-Waste Coalition, global e-waste production will reach 120 million tons per year by 2050. The report found that only 20% of the current 50 tons of e-waste produced annually is formally recycled, and those 50 tons have an estimated worth of $62.5 billion. The U.S. alone contributed nearly 7 million tons in 2019, according to the report.
If SB-568 is adopted, Camston Wrather will be in a good position to become a prime servicer for the state’s e-waste – and likely the country’s as well. The ability to keep much needed materials for electronics within the U.S. supply chain through recycling is an attractive solution in today’s geopolitical climate.
Camston Wrather’s Carlsbad facility was scaled up from a pilot program to a full-scale operation and the intention is to proliferate the model “very quickly,” Paulin said. “We anticipate having at least another two of these plants within the next 18 months.”
CEO: Dirk Wray
Headquarters: East Carlsbad
Business: Sustainable e-waste recycling
Notable: Camston Wrather’s system is for extracting metals and minerals from e-waste is 90% more carbon-friendly than smelting methods