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E-Waste Empire

New York City discards millions of pounds of dead electronics each year. We follow its path from shelf to shredder

Andrew J. Hawkins transportation editor with 10+ years of experience who covers EVs, public transportation, and aviation. His work has appeared in The New York Daily News and City & State.

Gadget shopping? Chances are that as soon as you plunk down cash for a new smartphone or 9.7-inch tablet or 4K / 3D / LED flatscreen television, a tiny part of your brain is already plotting its disposal. Thanks to rapid changes in technology, a shifting media landscape, and falling prices, discarded electronics have become the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. In the US, we threw away 16 billion pounds of circuit boards, transistors, and hard drives, also known as e-waste, in 2014 alone; about 50 pounds each for every man, woman, and child.

EWaste Lead

E-Waste Empire

New York City discards millions of pounds of dead electronics each year. We follow its path from shelf to shredder

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By Andrew J. Hawkins | Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales

Gadget shopping? Chances are that as soon as you plunk down cash for a new smartphone or 9.7-inch tablet or 4K / 3D / LED flatscreen television, a tiny part of your brain is already plotting its disposal. Thanks to rapid changes in technology, a shifting media landscape, and falling prices, discarded electronics have become the fastest-growing waste stream in the world. In the US, we threw away 16 billion pounds of circuit boards, transistors, and hard drives, also known as e-waste, in 2014 alone; about 50 pounds each for every man, woman, and child.

In response to all this digital detritus has risen a cottage industry of recyclers, from multi-million-dollar corporations to local nonprofits to fly-by-night, back-of-the-van scammers. It’s no small task, too. Recycling electronic waste requires the ability to collect, sort, dismantle, and extract recyclable materials and precious metals from a whole range of devices, while also separating out non-recyclable and hazardous waste. To be a large-scale e-waste recycler you need to have a fleet of vehicles, an army of workers, ample warehouse space, government contracts, and loads of insurance. The profits are slim, the overhead is huge, and regulatory landscape is endlessly confusing.

"It’s a constant challenge," says John Shegerian, CEO of the Fresno, California-based Electronics Recyclers International. With seven facilities around the country, ERI is one of the biggest e-waste recyclers in the US. Since getting into the business over a decade ago, the company’s margins have exploded. In April of 2005, it recycled 10,000 pounds of e-waste; this last April, that number spiked to 23 million pounds. ERI recycles most of New York City’s residential e-waste, which translated to over 2 million pounds in 2015 alone. "It’s a huge enterprise to recycle electronics in a responsible way… We’re recycling a couple hundred million pounds a year, over a billion pounds in our lifetime as a company, and we’ve still only scratched the surface."

The US has no federal law requiring e-waste be recycled. Currently, only 25 states in the US have laws establishing a funding system for the collection and recycling of electronic products, as well as bans against sending electronics to landfills. In the other 25 states, tossing toxic e-waste into the trash is perfectly legal.

And then there’s the disastrous effect that e-waste has had on Third World countries. The US is the only developed nation that hasn’t ratified an international treaty to stop First World countries from dumping their e-waste in developing nations. So, mountains of hazardous US-based waste are growing at an exponential rate in countries like India, China, and South Africa. Exported e-waste has turned rivers in China black and towns in Ghana into some of the world’s largest dumps. The UN Environment Programme predicts that between 2007 and 2020, the amount of e-waste exported to India will have jumped by 500 percent, and by 200 to 400 percent in South Africa and China.

Meanwhile, all of our electronics are getting smaller, more streamlined, and exceedingly more difficult to recycle. The larger companies, like Apple, HP, Huawei, Amazon, and Microsoft have detailed protocols for recycling their products, but that only applies to those that are actually returned by consumers. Most Americans toss their old gadgets in the trash with last night’s dinner. The rest is left to recyclers like ERI to try to bring some sanity to the process.

Over several weeks in early 2016, The Verge tracked just one of the countless e-waste recycling paths around the country, from a garbage room in an apartment building in Manhattan, to a drop-off site in Staten Island, to a sorting facility in New Jersey, to a bustling recycling warehouse in Massachusetts. The goal was simple: to get a broader sense of where all our old televisions, phones, and computers go when we don’t want them anymore.

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At 11AM on a windy Tuesday in February, a nondescript white truck pulls up outside the Manhattan Plaza, a 46-story residential tower in New York City's Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood which is home to some 3,500 tenants, many of them artists. Two men wearing fluorescent-yellow vests bearing the ERI logo pile out and, with the help of the building manager, roll a grey cart brimming with old electronics from the garbage room to the truck.

The cart is teeming with televisions, desktop computers, stereo equipment, laptops, modems, and even a handful of smartphones and tablets. Using a flimsy liftgate, the men load the cart into the back of the truck. A 50-inch DLP projection TV is too large for the cart and has to be brought onboard with a hand truck. One of the drivers takes a picture of the dusty relic with his phone. Someday, that phone will get thrown away. Will it be recycled?

The drivers will make 12 more pickups that day. ERI has a total of four trucks in New York City making similar routes each day, with building managers arranging pickups in advance. The company has contracts with 5,558 residential buildings across the city, and each borough has its own e-waste idiosyncrasies: Manhattan, for example, throws away a smaller percentage of big televisions than the more suburban neighborhoods of Staten Island and Queens.

Of course, many people in the Big Apple don’t live in buildings with dedicated e-waste pickups. For those people, places like the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s drop-off center in Brooklyn are essential. Next to the fetid Gowanus Canal, the warehouse is the only free, permanent e-waste drop-off facility in the city. The center handled over 1 million pounds of e-waste in 2015. In addition to recycling e-waste on site, the center also refurbishes old electronics to be sold in its prop library to film producers or set designers who may need an old cathode ray tube television for their next shoot.

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The next stop for the 50-inch DLP projection television and its dilapidated companions is tucked away in an industrial section of New Jersey’s Bergen County: this is a sorting facility, where all of New York City’s electronic waste goes to be separated and packaged before being sent out to various recycling facilities. Computers are stacked with other computers, keyboards with keyboards, flat-screen TVs with flat-screen TVs, and so on. The grey bins that reside in the refuse rooms of the city’s apartment buildings are emptied out, and then reloaded onto the trucks, to be returned to their respective garbage rooms back in the city.

Only five people work at the Lyndhurst warehouse, loading and reloading 15,000 pounds of pounds of e-waste every day. Inside, a sea of electronics, some shrinkwrapped, some not, spreads out like a vast electronic graveyard: Magnavox TVs with built-in VCRs, TVs built into ornate wooden cabinets, a crumbling pile of computer monitors.

This facility is not long for the world. ERI says it is looking for larger space, where it can maybe start recycling e-waste closer to the city. Freight and labor are the company’s two biggest costs. It’s incredibly expensive to send the city’s e-waste to its other recycling facilities in Massachusetts, Indiana, and North Carolina, both in terms of fuel costs and manpower.

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Holliston, Massachusetts is a small town about an hour outside Boston, famous for the Balancing Rock, a legendary (and precariously perched) stone that not even George Washington himself could push over. It’s also where ERI’s 100,000 square-foot recycling facility churns at a furious pace. Visitors entering the warehouse are greeted by the sight of a scrap metal waterfall raining down from an elevated conveyor belt. Forklifts crisscross the factory floor bearing pallets of shrink-wrapped electronics. Each day, 61,000 pounds of televisions and 89,000 pounds of computers, laptops, phones, and a grab bag of printers, cable boxes, video game consoles, network adapters, and even a few smartphones, smartwatches, tablets, phablets, fitness trackers, and drones come through here. Some are practically brand-new.

"You never know what’s going to be in the back of one of those trailers," says Gary Keith, the plant manager. And he’s right; perched atop one bin sits a weathered-looking Apple IIc, a proto-laptop released in 1984, complete with its original packaging.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Around the warehouse, old electronics are endlessly brutalized. Teams of workers snap laptops in half, smash screens, disembowel computers, and cripple keyboards. One employee wearing a Ghostbusters T-shirt rips apart printers and bulky Toshiba laptops as if they were made of matchsticks. Giant piles of circuit boards and shredded plastic gather at his feet. A roller coaster of conveyor belts soars overhead. It’s the perfect place for a Luddite with anger issues.

In the back of the facility lurks the green, hulking, three-story-tall shredder. Occupying over 40,000 square feet of space, the shredder is comprised of a series of conveyor belts, shakers, and sorters. Metal and plastic is hammered, ground, and pushed through a steel screen until it is pulverized into a fine dust. Dozens of plastic bags with their weights marked on the side — 1,418 pounds; 2,581 pounds; 2,299 pounds — are stacked in the corner, waiting to be shipped off to the smelter.

But the unloading, smashing, and shredding of e-waste is only half the operation here. To get to the facility’s data security wing, you have to go through a metal detector and get past an eagle-eyed security guard. Here, neat stacks of laptops sit on top of wooden pallets, while a team of middle-aged men wielding power tools quietly disassemble each one, wipe the hard drives, and send them to the mini-shredder that sits in a cage in the corner.

This is where Corporate America — financial service firms, medical groups, insurance companies, basically anyone with industrial secrets they want to protect — sends its leftover electronics to be scrubbed of data, refurbished, resold, or completely recycled. Thirty-plus security cameras cover the area, known at ERI as the "asset management" wing. No one without special clearance is allowed in. All the electronics going in have to match the weight of material that comes out, down to the milligram. "Sounds like overkill," says Scott Townsend, director of recycling solutions. "But we’re not willing to take that chance."

The memory-wiping process is hardly instantaneous — one terabyte, or 1,000 GBs, takes 10 hours. ERI has a "zero tolerance" policy: if the company fails to wipe the drive, the item takes a permanent detour to the shredder.

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A facility like ERI can harvest 170,000 pounds of copper and 525 pounds of gold, silver, and palladium a month. Where do those precious commodities go? Simply put, they’re sent to burn. The smelting industry in the US is in decline, with plants shuttering across the country. Fifteen years ago, there were 23 active aluminum smelters in the US. Today there are only six. Alcoa, which most recently closed its Evansville, Indiana facility in January, has just one US smelter still in operation in Massena, New York, and that’s only because of a $70 million aid package from the state. It’s not hard to envision a future in which all smelting is outsourced to countries like China and Russia, where safety standards are lax in comparison.

ERI says it recycles 98 percent of the electronics it collects — the only components not recycled are the wood from old console TVs and speakers and other equipment with wood. The company then sells its precious metal materials to two main smelters: LS Nikko, which is based in South Korea; and Alcoa. Once material is processed at the smelters they create a more pure commodity to be sold on the commodities market. Prices have fluctuated wildly since the market crashed in 2008. At a certain point, recyclers of e-waste can spend more money recycling electronics than they make selling the post-recyclable material back to the manufacturers.

Meanwhile, more and more electronics are getting tossed in the trash. Globally, people threw away 42 million tons of e-waste in 2014, or over 84 billion pounds. That number is expected to grow this year to over 91 billion pounds. By 2017, the global volume of e-waste will weigh the equivalent of eight of the great Egyptian pyramids, according to the UN. Or to put it another way, an amount equal to 126 Empire State Buildings. That’s a veritable skyline of e-waste, and it’s rising taller every day.

Correction: This article previously stated that the global e-waste estimate for 2016 was 1.87 trillion pounds. In fact, it is 187 billion pounds.

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Product by Frank Bi

Lead image and design by James Bareham

Edited by Michael Zelenko