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How to turn a mountain of cell phones into shiny engagement rings

New Discovery Channel show profiles Barrie company that transforms electronic trash

If one man's trash is another man's treasure then Global Electric Electronic Processing (GEEP) of Barrie has won the garbage lottery.

The local waste recycling plant on John Street transforms electronic trash in its massive 500,000 square foot 24-7 facility.

"Every year we recycle at our operation in Barrie about 50,000 tons — that's about 100 million pounds of material," said Ted Cooper, director of operations at GEEP. "That's probably about 5,000 truckloads which would be enough to make a line down the 400 from downtown Toronto all the way up to Barrie."

The company caught the attention of the Discovery Channel and is profiled twice in a new series called Made For Destruction.

Billed as the 'ultimate makeover show," Made For Destruction devotes a segment to tracking the death and rebirth of discarded cell phones.

GEEP grinds up the circuit boards into a powdery mix and mines it for the gold, silver and palladium.  

The precious metals are melted into white gold and transformed into shiny engagement rings. 

"It's an extraordinary mountain of cell phones we saw there. I've never seen anything like it," explains Made For Destruction producer Robin Bicknell. "We were tracking the gold coming from cell phones all the way through its journey to a company in New York City that takes gold from circuit boards and turns it into jewellery.  So this mountain of cell phones in Barrie ends up becoming engagement rings which is very cool."

The second segment on the show from the Barrie factory follows the journey of old tube television sets that are mined at GEEP for their big copper coils and transformed into high-end copper cookware.

Bicknell and her production crew visited 108 factories all over the world to prepare thirty-nine separate segments.

Many of these transformations have up to four or five different stops on the way.

"What's great about this series is you get that kind of satisfaction of watching something get made, but on top of it you get the satisfaction of watching something get destroyed," said Bicknell.  "There's something so satisfying about watching things get crushed and smashed and then you just see it be reborn."

Bicknell has done a lot of shows in the past twenty years but says Made For Destruction is one of her favourites.

Among the many fascinating transformations:

  • blue jeans become sunglasses

  • cremated human remains are turned into diamonds

  • batteries transformed into corn

  • photocopiers to trumpets    

  • potatoes to egg cartons    

  • plastic milk jugs to park benches    

Rapidly changing technology puts many of our devices into early retirement and potentially into a landfill. 

Bricknell says the show reveals the extent of this burgeoning recycling industry where companies are cashing in on the value of what we throw away.

"Imagine from a business model your commodity is free," said Bicknell. "In fact, it's stuff that people want to get rid of and in some cases they will pay you to take it from them. It's kind of brilliant and if you want to make it rich, I would get into the garbage biz."

The prevalence of waste that's generated is a big problem for society, says Cooper, and he's proud to be part of a company that recycles waste from across North America, although up to 65 percent of what GEEP handles is from Ontario.

"From our standpoint we're working hard every day to do our part and help recover valuable commodities from the electronics that are disposed," said Cooper, who found the Discovery Channel production process "really neat."

"I'm a big fan of the show How It's Made. It's kind of the reverse of that concept so I was really excited to be a part of it. I think it's a good opportunity for us to be profiled."

From Bicknell's perspective, preparing this series gave her hope.

"We're constantly being told that we're being terrible to the earth and that we should feel very badly about our garbage and in some ways it gives you a little bit of hope — kind of makes you feel good because of the number of people that are doing things with our trash.  And not on small scales —  it's like massive industry."  

Made by Destruction premieres July 4 on the Discovery Channel with back-to-back episodes beginning at 7pm ET. 

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Sue Sgambati

About the Author: Sue Sgambati

Sue has had a 30-year career in journalism working for print, radio and TV. She is a proud member of the Barrie community.
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