What Actually Happens to Recycled Electronics

By Holly Kellum, Epoch Times
January 30, 2014 5:30 am Last Updated: January 31, 2014 4:18 pm

NEW YORK—In 2015 a New York law will go into effect that makes it illegal for New York residents to throw their electronics out with the trash.

It is already illegal for residents to throw out rechargeable batteries under state law, but starting next January, TV’s, computers, e-readers, VCR’s, satellite receivers, small printers, keyboards, and other electronics will also be on that list.

“When that law takes effect I think we’ll definitely see more drop offs,” said Sam Huntington, the manager of the Lower East Side Ecology Center E-waste Warehouse that specializes in electronic recycling.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that recycling 1 million laptops saves the energy equivalent of what 3,657 U.S. homes consume in a year.

Yet in 2009, the EPA said only about 25 percent of electronics had been recycled at the end of their lifecycle.

The Lower East Side Ecology Center (LESEC) started in 1987 as Outstanding Renewal Enterprise, Inc. providing recycling and composting services for the community. In 2012 it opened its e-waste warehouse at 469 President St., in Brooklyn, where they accept batteries, all kinds of electronics, chords, cables, and pretty much anything electric but kitchen appliances.

While people do not get money for their donations, the warehouse does give them a receipt so they can write it off on their taxes.

“Ideally if we could, we would reuse and resell everything that we get in,” said Huntington, who gave Epoch Times a tour of the facility.

The warehouse tests all the electronics it gets, wiping the memory, refurbishing all the devices that are still good, and reselling them through its onsite store. For vintage and antique electronics, it has a prop library where people in the movie or theater business can rent its equipment.

But for the devices that cannot be reused, it partners with two other companies—Hugo Neu Recycling in Westchester County and Sims Recycling Solutions headquartered in Chicago with two facilities in New Jersey. They are the ones that process the electronics for reuse as raw material and sell them back to the manufacturer.

Hugo Neu Recycling

Hugo Neu Recycling in the little town of Mount Vernon, N.Y., partners with business all over the tri-state area to recycle electronics.

Anthony Cardenales, the operations manager at Hugo Neu, estimates it processes anywhere from 1.5 million to 2.5 million pounds of electronics a month. Like LESEC it tries to repurpose as much as it can, selling refurbished products on local, national, and international markets.

For products that are broken or too old to be reused, it goes through a multistep de-manufacturing process at the warehouse.

Break Down

The EPA estimates that mining one ton of circuit boards produces 40–800 times the amount of gold as one ton of ore. For copper, it is 30–40 times the amount found in copper ore.

At Hugo Neu they remove anything that may have value, like gold, silver, or copper, as well as anything that would pose a health hazard, like lead, cadmium, or mercury that lace many electronics. The rest is put through what Hugo Neu calls a Shred Ready machine that grinds it up into a form that can be sold back to manufacturers as raw material.

What it cannot process locally, it sends to other companies who can safely remove the precious materials and deal with the hazardous waste.

“We vet them and ensure that what they’re doing is complying with both e-stewards and any of the local, state, and federal regulations,” said Cardenales about his downstream recyclers.

E-Stewards

Hugo Neu is an e-Stewards recycler, a certification that requires adherence to specific environmental and health safety guidelines as set out by the e-Stewards Initiative, a project by e-waste watchdog the Basel Action Network (BAN).

While Hugo Neu is trying to recycle its products responsibly, the companies that don’t make it hard to compete.

“Just the cost of collection and the cost of recycling responsibly. It’s really difficult to compete against someone who is just stuffing a container and sending it overseas,” complains Cardenales.

The EPA says on its website “US laws and regulations are limited in their ability to prevent harmful exports of used electronics to developing countries.”

This means that companies shipping their e-waste to poorer countries with less stringent environmental and health safety laws can offer much lower prices for their recycling services with very little penalty.

Next Generation, Next Recycling Challenge

Hugo Neu is also at the mercy of the evolving market of electronics, with each new generation of technology posing a new recycling challenge.

New York is 1 of 23 states that require Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) to take back and recycle any products they sell in the state. Hugo Neu used to work with these manufacturers, but stopped in 2013 because it was not profitable enough.

“The way they are designing products now,” said Cardenales. “It’s almost as if they don’t want refurbishment, they don’t have refurbishment and repair in mind.”

He said tablets and cathode ray tubes (CRT), which are in many old TVs and computer monitors, are especially hard to recycle. Some products he said are just not worth the time and energy they take to recycle.

“There’s a long way to getting where we need to be just as an industry,” said Cardenales.

He hopes that through ongoing discussions with OEMs and better laws and practices around e-waste recycling, it will eventually create a more profitable market for recyclers and prevent a lot of electronics from ending up in landfills.

Holly Kellum is a special correspondent in New York.