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Computers ready for recycling in Olympia, WA. Photo: Bluedisk at en.wikipedia
Computers ready for recycling in Olympia, WA. Photo: Bluedisk at en.wikipedia

E-waste recycling: from bytes to bits and pieces

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When the town of Canton opened a drop-off site this week for old electronics, it was not only giving St. Lawrence County residents a convenient way to dispose of unwanted TVs, computers, and cellphones, it was also helping them comply with the law.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the New York State law that requires old electronics be recycled instead of simply thrown in the trash. Under the law, manufacturers have to collect and recycle the products they create when consumers are done with them. But a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council finds the law is having mixed results.

Reporter Tracey Samuelson of New York Public Radio followed one discarded computer through the recycling process.

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It's an old, grey Gateway computer tower, Pentium 4, Windows XP, recently put out to pasture by the New School in Chelsea.

The school has gathered over 750 pounds of electronic waste - or e-waste - for recycling over the last two weeks and they've hired a company called 4th Bin to collect it.

"So four big hulking computers weighing at 129. 129 pounds."

John Kirsch is one of the company's co-founders.

He picks up e-waste for recycling in a rented u-haul, and, depending on size, charges between 10 and 125 dollars per item.

"I mean you can tell how old they are, Gateway's been out of business for 5 years now."

The average U.S. household now has 24 electronic devices.

And as we rush to replace them with the latest, greatest model, we're creating literally TONS of e-waste, 2.4 million tons each year, and only a quarter of that is recycled.

When it's not, there's the risk that toxins inside: lead, mercury, beryllium, can end up polluting ground water or the air.

The END of the Gateway starts with a truck ride to the 4th Bin's storage facility in Harlem, then on to the warehouse of a company called 'We Recycle!' outside the city.

There, it joins a graveyard of TVs, printers, faxes, phones, miles of tangled cables and chords.

First stop is the Harvest department, where disassembly technician Robert Marcial starts tearing it apart.

"Now, inside, the main contents that we try to take out first is the aluminum, battery, the hard drives and also the CPUs. You can see some of the platinum, actually shining and glistening."

When he's done, the computer is just a sad shell

Supervisor Carlos Jorge knows it's the end of the line for our Gateway.

"That's where it gets cut, that's our twin shaft shredder. It's going to break in half to 3/4 pieces."

"Ready?"

From here, the chewed-up pieces are sorted into bags of metals, plastics, and circuit boards.

Each will be sold to another recycler, who will melt them down to make new gadgets and devices.

The whole cycle will start again.

Between the New School and the shredder, at least ten people touched our Gateway computer over 20 miles, on three trucks, through three warehouses.

Sounds like a lot, but it's actually not, says Kate Sinding, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"It's much more likely that something gets collected and then goes either a significant distance within state, or possibly out of state, or in many cases abroad for handling."

Congress is considering legislation to ban shipping e-waste abroad, where it could be dumped, incinerated, or dismantled using child labor.

And about half of all states have passed their own e-waste laws.

In New York, starting this year, companies can no longer dump their old equipment in the trash.

In 2015, the same will apply to consumers.

Like most states, New York makes e-waste recycling the manufacturers' job, they have to collect a certain amount each year or face fines.

But consumers still have to get their dead electronics to the manufacturer.

"In New York City, where rates of car ownership are much lower, where there are fewer clear options for permanent collection facilities, we don't have a dump in that sense, it's not been as successful."

Manufacturers are collecting most of their required tonnage upstate.

Christine Datz-Romero organizes one-day collection events around the city.

She also recently opened a warehouse in Brooklyn, where people can come to drop off their e-waste.

"It'll take a lot of these sort of projects to really cover all of New York City, but in the end that's what we really need to create, we need to create an infrastructure."

Infrastructure like more warehouses. Pop-up collection events. And education.

So people will know that this stuff can't go in the trash and what options they have for getting rid of it.

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