Engineering a Tough Switch: Getting New Yorkers to Recycle Electronics
They are often wedged in closets, collecting dust. Some inevitably end up between banana peels and apple cores in a landfill. In New York City, finding an appropriate final resting place for aging computers, boom boxes and televisions can be an arduous task.
An even more daunting obstacle might be educating their owners.
As the fate of a City Council bill requiring electronic waste recycling rests on the tip of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s pen, many New Yorkers have no idea where and how to dispose of unwanted electronic items, many of which contain environmental hazards like lead and mercury.
Sabrina Brown, for example, has never heard of “e-waste” recycling.
Ms. Brown, 20, a student from Richmond Hill, Queens, said she had three cellphones, an old laptop computer, an old television, two old radios and three old cameras sitting in her room.
“I don’t know where to take them,” she said.
Mr. Bloomberg has expressed strong opposition to a bill passed by the City Council last month that would fine New Yorkers $100 for throwing electronics in the garbage and would require manufacturers to take back their products and those made by companies that are no longer in business.
Mr. Bloomberg, who says the bill penalizes manufacturers for the behavior of consumers, is expected to veto the measure this week, but the bill may have enough support in Council to pass in an override or a compromise. Whatever the bill’s form, New Yorkers already have several opportunities to recycle their electronics, including collection events sponsored by the city’s Sanitation Department twice a year.
The Lower East Side Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental group, holds monthly electronic waste drop-off events. The center also works with Build It Green! NYC, a nonprofit retail outlet for salvaged and surplus building materials, which accepts unwanted electronics at its warehouse in Astoria, Queens, Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Per Scholas is a Bronx-based organization that accepts old electronics and refurbishes computers to distribute in low-income communities and to schools. Some retailers, including Staples, accept old electronics at their stores for recycling.
Last year, the Lower East Side Ecology Center collected 118 tons of discarded electronics, more than in any previous year, though the center also held twice as many collection events as it had in the past.
The Sanitation Department, which began its electronics drop-off events in 2004, saw a steady increase in its collection through the first three years. But the number of tons collected dipped to 295 in 2007 from 309 in 2006, though the number of people who provided something for recycling increased.
“Fundamentally, people seem to think there’s something criminal about throwing away a computer” because they paid so much for it, said Robert Lange, the Sanitation Department’s director of waste prevention, reuse and recycling.
Some people who don’t recycle find other ways to keep their electronics out of the waste stream. “I pass it on to my family, sisters and brothers,” said Nick Sky, 36, who lives on the Upper East Side.
To keep up with the latest technology for work, Clint Hild, 28, a digital imaging specialist who lives in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, replaces his computer every year. He turns to eBay to dispose of his old ones.
Mr. Hild might be the rare person who has an extensive knowledge of electronics recycling. He used to work as a technician in a computer lab at Wells College in upstate New York. When the lab was ready to update its equipment, he helped find a center where the old computers could be recycled.
As a child, Mr. Hild said, he went “Dumpster diving,” collecting old electronics from the garbage and restoring them.
“I don’t throw them away because even hardware from five, 10 years ago still has a use,” he said.
According to a Sanitation Department study of waste disposed in 2004 and 2005, discarded electronics made up 0.64 percent of the city’s trash.
But even a small amount of such waste can produce contamination, said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Ms. Sinding cited a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency that said electronics might account for 40 percent of the lead found in landfills nationwide.
“The tons may be small, but it carries a disproportionate impact in terms of its environmental and health risks,” she said.
Ms. Sinding said she expected an “e-waste tsunami” next year when most television stations stop broadcasting analog signals over the air, and older TV sets without digital tuners become obsolete. Christine Datz-Romero, a co-founder of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, said organizations in the city needed to better publicize electronics recycling and make it more accessible.
“If you have an old clunky monitor sitting in your house, a lot of New Yorkers don’t have transportation,” she said. “It’s really a burden for New Yorkers to schlep something uptown or downtown.”
Recycling electronics can also be pricey, costing $300 to $400 per ton. Ms. Datz-Romero said her organization spent $40,000 last year on electronic waste recycling. The center does not charge people for dropping off electronics and relies on fund-raising. At Staples, customers must pay $10 for each electronic item they drop off.
The center sends its electronics to Supreme Asset Management and Recovery, in Lakewood, N.J. There, the items are separated into two categories: those that can be refurbished and resold and those that are turned into scraps and recycled.
Ms. Datz-Romero and other supporters of the City Council recycling bill said they hoped it would force manufacturers to make it easier for consumers to recycle their electronics by offering incentives like mail-back programs. The bill would not provide curbside electronics recycling, which could be an impediment, some recycling advocates said.
Carey Pulverman, the project manager for the Lower East Side Ecology Center, spends much of her day on the phone with people looking for ways to get rid of old electronics.
“The thing is, people don’t want to go out of their way to do it,” she said. “Mostly, it’s them trying to talk to me about why they need their stuff picked up.”