Where Do Recycled Electronics Go?

As New York and other states make e-cycling mandatory, we look at the tech

They need a home, but not in the ground. Credit: Jklamo via Wikimedia Commons

Starting in 2015, the 20 million residents of New York State will be forbidden to throw away electronics. The statewide ban requires residents to dispose of their unwanted TVs, printers and MP3 players at designated stores and drop-off locations to be recycled, or pay a $100 fine if these items are left curbside for sanitation workers. To some, dragging their huge, non-functional TV down the snowy New York City streets may sound like a hassle. But to others, it means that a little less of the millions of tons of e-waste thrown away each year doesn't end up in landfills, where they are notorious contributors of toxic waste. So what happens to electronics when they're recycled?

When you drop off your old printer, it is first inspected to see if it's salvageable. "You would be surprised what people bring us," said Christine Datz-Romero, the executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which is one of about 80 e-recycling drop-off locations in New York City. Her center alone handles about 350 tons of material each year, and technicians resell or refurbish items that could still be used out of their warehouse in Brooklyn.

Items that can't be reused in their current state are wrapped up with all the other recyclable items and shipped in tractor-trailers to a designated recycling plant. After technicians have inspected them, the items are put through a powerful shredder, which breaks them into small chunks. Every plant sorts the materials a little differently but many use an optical sorting system, which uses a laser beam to identify the properties of the hunks that go by on a conveyor belt, which categorizes the pieces into bins for plastic, metal and computer chips. These bins of commodities are then sold on the global market.

When the materials are sold, that's where the real recycling comes in. "All plastics in computers, for example, have flame-retardant materials in them, which gets reused to produce more technology materials," Datz-Romero said. Plastic, she noted, usually gets sold to manufacturers in China to be used in other electronics. Metals extracted from recycled products usually stay closer to home because the U.S. still has lots of domestic uses and manufacturing facilities for metal. Elements like rare earth metals, used in many electronics, are much easier to exact from our recycled electronics than from the earth itself.

Although most electronics can be recycled this way, some things just can't go through the shredder. Cell phones often end up at the same sorts of recycling plants, but New York has had a separate mandated recycling process since 2006 by requiring that companies that sell cell phones to have recycling programs, too. That has taken a bit longer with other electronics, maybe because people don't throw them away as often. When materials first arrive at a recycling plant, technicians remove things like print cartridges or rechargeable batteries that might explode in the shredder. CRT monitors, the kind of TV and computer screens used before flatscreens became commonplace, have to be dismantled by hand because they have a layer of lead behind the glass used to protect consumers from the beam of electrons that generates the image on the screen. "That could be up to eight pounds of lead that could be extracted [from one monitor] and sent to smelters in the U.S.," Datz-Romero said.

50 million tons of electronic waste are dumped into landfills worldwide every year.

With its push to get consumers to recycle their e-waste, New York—and 24 other states—intends to cut down on the 50 million tons of electronic waste dumped into landfills worldwide every year. Most other kinds of waste gradually decompose, releasing gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but don't totally destroy the surrounding environment; although electronic waste makes up 2 percent of what is dumped in landfills, it makes up 70 percent of the toxic waste found there. When electronics start to break down, they release the metals and chemicals inside them, including lead, which has been linked to a slew of health issues. Over time, these toxic chemicals can leach into nearby groundwater. "Electronics really contain so much energy and toxic materials in them that it's imperative that we don't throw them in the trash," Datz-Romero said. "You're trashing our environment in a significant way."

Some question the effectiveness of the new ban; in New York City where many people live in apartment buildings, the $100 fine will fall on landlords and supers, which won't force tenants to take responsibility. "That's a huge problem—it's not really directly affecting the generator or consumer who has put it in wrong place," Datz-Romero said. Also, having consumers bring large electronics to the limited number of recycling centers isn't exactly ideal. "The hardest part is that New York City doesn't have enough infrastructure right now to handle convenient ways to make people participate," Datz-Romero said. Some large apartment buildings can request bins for electronics recycling to be installed on the premises, which will be emptied periodically by the Department of Sanitation, or they can attend e-recycling events where large trucks come right to their neighborhoods.

Although the ban may be inconvenient for some at first, Datz-Romero thinks it’s a strong step in the right direction. “The ban is used to make more people aware that just putting things in the trash is not a good idea,” she said. “It’s a piece of the puzzle.”

For more information about the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which has a number of programs, including electronics reselling and even a prop library of old gadgets, visit their website.

Correction (12/23/2014, 08:40 p.m. ET): The original story incorrectly stated that the Lower East Side Ecology Center was one of the organizations that empties the bins for e-recycling in large apartment buildings. This is done by the NYC Department of Sanitation. We regret the error.