3 October 2004

Silicon in the Naked City

Don't Throw Away Your Old or Non-Working Computer...

Last week, I was delighted to receive a piece of mail from the New York City Department of Sanitation.

The flyer announced a series of events around the city to collect, refurbish, and recycle old electronics in an environmentally responsible manner.

Electronic devices constitute less than one percent of the NYC waste stream, but the materials are extremely toxic if not disposed of properly.

I know non-profit and volunteer groups hold collection events from time to time, but I almost always find out about them after the fact. The refurbished computers are usually donated or sold to low-income families, schools, and community groups for a nominal fee.

This time, however, the Department of Sanitation itself is sponsoring events in the five boroughs to collect e-waste. Working cell phones are being donated to Collective Good.

The events are jointly funded by Dell and Lexmark and the National Recycling Coalition. The Lower East Side Ecology Center and other community groups are coordinating.

I asked Robert Lange, New York City’s Director of Recycling and Waste Prevention about the events:


SDN: Was this started at the initiative of the City, local groups, or manufacturers?

eWaste Recycling Flyer
Click to view a larger version
RL: It’s really a combination. Dell has a variety of programs for taking back computers and so do other manufacturers listed on the flyer. I wanted to advertise this to the public. Sometimes the government is pushed to do a program that in some ways is already being met, it’s just that the public doesn’t know about it. If you’re concerned about these items and you want to dispose of them in a responsible manner, there are outlets for you right now. Basically, our advertising is directing people to an existing network. When we were talking to Dell about it, they said that they had some funds that they would be willing to have for drop-off in addition to that.


I usually find out these things after the fact. What kind of outreach are you doing?

We sent out the flyer well in advance to every residence in the city, and posted the information on our Web site.


Is this aimed primarily at consumers or businesses or both?

It is aimed at city residences.


Will there be a similar push directed at businesses?

It’s possible.

In things like this, it depends on who picks up the tab. Does the tab get picked up by the businesses that profit from the manufacture and sale of these items? Is the tab picked up by consumers? Is some ways, ultimately, the tab is always picked up by the consumer, either directly associated as a charge with the item when they by it, or indirectly through a tax, to run a municipal program, for example.

In my own estimation, because there is an infrastructure for producing these things and delivering the products to people, it makes sense to use the same distribution network to take them back if possible.

And to some extent, Dell and other manufacturers are doing that. If you look at the flyer or the Web site, there are services currently provided by these companies for taking back computers. In some cases, there’s a nominal charge, in other cases there’s no charge, but it’s services they provide to directly take back computers from consumers after their useful life.


Given the toxicity of materials, is there a chance that the disposal may be regulated legislatively?

There are materials like this in the waste stream that are increasing in volume and they need to be addressed. Whether they need to be addressed by a municipal program or not is something that is still in question.

There are a variety of proposed pieces of legislation, both in our area and in other parts of the country to require that this material be handled in a more responsible manner. Different legislators have different perspectives on who picks up the tab.

My own opinion is that this is something that manufacturers should really be required to deal with. And to some extent they are stepping up to the plate because the funds for these drop-off programs that we are running through community-based organizations are being provided by Dell and Lexmark.

Recycle Your Old Computer!I don’t know if you are familiar with an organization called RBRC which is for taking back batteries — particularly Nickel Cadmium batteries. It is funded and run by the battery industry. A few years ago, when the industry was facing the potential of severe regulation governing how batteries could be disposed of, all the manufacturers got together set up an informal network to receive batteries from the public. All the Radio Shacks, Staples, and organizations like that take back batteries from the public as part of the network they established. And they did that try to avoid the kind of regulation that was coming down.

I think the computer industry has an even greater incentive to do that, so I expect that what is now fairly informal will become a more formal network in the future. Either that or there will be legislation passed.


What are your future plans?

This is something of an experiment. As I said, the funds are being provided by Dell and Lexmark. Whether they will continue to provide funding... they have not made a long range commitment to that effect.

The collections will run through the fall. How we go forward will depend on the amount success we have. Events like this have been run in the City before and the average tonnage of computers and electronics received per event is approximately 10 tons. We hope to see exponentially higher numbers because this mailing is going to every household in the City.


For more information, visit the NYC Wasteless Web site.

...

And while we’re talking trash, big up to the Mayor for his plan to ship waste from Manhattan’s 59th Street pier instead of trucking it to Brooklyn and the South Bronx.This should relieve some of the burden from low-income neighborhoods who overwhelming suffer the traffic of the City’s trash.

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