How we made New York City with a pile of e-waste

From shelf to shredder to water-jet saw to our coffee table


This past week, we published Andrew Hawkins' feature E-Waste Empire, which tracked the millions of pounds of dead electronics that New York discards each year. Both Andrew and our staff photographer Amelia Krales followed the path of e-waste recycling from Manhattan, through Staten Island, New Jersey and onto a huge recycling facility in Holliston, MA. Amelia shot reportage photos of each stage of the process and mountains of discarded TVs, computers, cell phones —even an Apple II, complete with box. As a result, we had more great images than we could possibly use in the final piece. But when it came to designing the feature, we found it hard to select one photo that really summed up the entire e-waste’s journey from "shelf to shredder."

Like many New Yorkers, I travel the subway every day. During one of my daily commutes into The Verge’s office in midtown I was pondering what we were going to use for a lead image when I found myself looking at the MTA subway map. The solution suddenly became immediately obvious: we should build a map of the five boroughs of New York using some of the city’s actual e-waste!

 James Bareham

The first step was to get some actual e-waste. Luckily Amelia know exactly where to go. The second largest collector and recycler of e-waste in New York is the non-profit, Lower East Side Ecology Center. Their warehouse and drop off site in Gowanus, Brooklyn, reportedly accepted over one million pounds of e-waste in 2015. 99% of that was recycled; the remaining 1% was reused in some fashion or added to their prop library—which is a treasure trove of old gadgets and vintage tech.

 Amelia Krales

The facility gave Amelia one hour to pick up e-waste of all kinds. In addition to collecting piles of circuit boards from various old laptops and desktops, LSE Ecology Center volunteers, staff members and interns showed her how to dissect the discarded cell phones, TV remotes and keyboards we needed to create the "buildings" and "streets" on our "map".

I’d originally been planning to spend a weekend merrily cutting out the shapes of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island from the various circuit boards with a hacksaw. But when I saw the full bags of e-waste Amelia had collected, I began to wonder whether a weekend was long enough; the circuit boards were way thicker and more rigid than I remembered.

 Amelia Krales

Fortunately, Amelia discovered the solution while we working on Sean O’Kane’s GoPro feature. When we decided to cut a GoPro in half to photograph the insides, we quickly realized that cutting it by hand was out of the question. As were (to my lasting regret) lasers. Instead, Amelia found and enlisted the services of PR Stone & Tile, who (as their name suggests) are a stone and tile cutting company based in Brooklyn. They are the proud owners of a AIM 2400 water jet saw and were more than happy to use it to cut our GoPro in half using 60,000 pounds of water pressure. After that success, I assumed that cutting circuit boards should be easy by comparison. I was wrong; it turned out to be way more complicated.

 Amelia Krales

The first step was creating the artwork. I downloaded the MTA subway map and used an Apple Pencil, an iPad Pro and Adobe Illustrator to trace around the shapes of the five boroughs. The Adobe vector files were then converted to CADCAM .DXF files that could be read by StonePro, the program used to control the water jet saw. Unfortunately the files promptly crashed the software. They were way too intricate and had to be significantly simplified to have any chance of working. After a little trial and error by the very patient staff at the PR Stone & Tile, the software finally accepted the files and the cutting began. It took the good part of a day and Amelia stayed on site to document the entire process.

 Amelia Krales

The result was near perfect: The green circuit boards were successfully cut into the various shapes that make up the landmass of greater New York City. But we still needed The Hudson, the East River and the Upper Bay. So I screwed a few blue memory boards from old Apple Mac Pros (the same boards we had used for the lead image for our recent HTC 10 review) onto a wooden base and mounted the cut green circuit boards on top. I then glued various small circuit boards from smartphones and tv remotes—along with various other pieces of digital detritus—to the boards to create the illusion of city blocks and buildings. I even used a random piece of metal to represent the new World Trade Center and a CPU chip for Central Park.

When it was finished, I brought the model back into the office to photograph it. It turned out to be one of the fastest photo shoots I have done at The Verge; I doubt it took longer than ten minutes. Retouching was kept to a bare minimum: just a little cleanup (though not too much, this is e-waste after all), color correction and shading before being dropped into the final layout.

The New York City E-Waste map now sits on a table next to the orange couches in The Verge’s office. We’re still deciding what to do with it: We could cover it with plexy and use it as coffee table; we could hang it on the wall; or maybe we could just leave it where it is. Whatever we finally decide to do, at least if we ever decide to throw it out one day we know exactly where to take it to be recycled.

 James Bareham