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The future of urban electronics recycling begins to take shape Click to Enlarge

A model of what could become a core for recycling electronics in urban areas may be embodied in the new e-cycleNYC program, a multi-unit dwelling collection method announced in May by New York City’s (NYC) sanitation commissioner John J. Doherty.

The Department of Sanitation New York (DSNY) was faced with many challenges when it came to designing a program to recover electronics from their solid waste stream in a highly complex urban environment, the most densely populated city in the country.

DSNY also had to prepare for a looming deadline. Starting in 2015, it will be illegal for New Yorkers to discard electronic goods in the trash. The New York State Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act already encourages the recycling of consumer electronics through various take-back and collection programs. Examples of programs that allow residents to drop off unwanted electronics for free include those offered by Best Buy, Goodwill, Salvation Army and Staples.

But over 50 percent of NYC’s population lives in apartment buildings, and over 50 percent of its population has no access to a vehicle to move large electronics. Due to these factors, the rate of electronics recycling currently falls below the state average. DSNY hopes to boost the e-recycling rate by targeting apartment dwellers that have the most difficulty recycling electronics.

Phase one of e-cycleNYC is underway and involves DSNY enrolling apartment buildings with 10 or more units to participate in the new program, which may begin collections as early as this fall. Depending on the size and type of building, a variety of options will be available to residents including storage bins, room clean-outs, and building events. Once underway, the in-building service will represent one of the most comprehensive electronics recycling programs offered by any municipality in the country.

After an extensive bidding process involving dozens of prospective vendors, DSNY awarded a 15 year contract to Electronics Recycling International (ERI) to collect and recycle the electronics. DSNY required that all materials be handled in an environmentally responsible manner that ensured that none of the accepted materials would be landfilled nor exported illegally and all data would be destroyed. All seven of ERI’s U.S. processing facilities comply with the strictest industry and environmental standards and hold e-Stewards and R2 certifications.

ERI currently recycles approximately 250 million pounds of electronics annually in the U.S. Part of ERI’s recycling services include setting up collection and recycling programs with electronics manufacturers across the U.S., whether voluntarily implemented by the manufacturer or legislatively required, such as the program for New York State Electronics manufacturers, through their requirements under the New York State law, will assist in the funding of the e-cycleNYC program. The program will not receive any taxpayer or federal aid dollars to support the program.

American Recycler asked John Shegerian, president and chief executive officer of ERI about the new program and what it means to his company and the city.

“This is a super big deal for ERI. I’m a native New Yorker. I grew up here, went to high school and college in Manhattan, and live there. It goes back to that old Sinatra song – “if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.” It seems that whatever New York City showcases, whether banning smoking in bars or anything else, the domino effect and reverberations are heard around the world. The phone calls and contacts that have rolled in after the contract was announced have put us on the world stage. We were already the leading brand in electronics waste recycling in the U.S., but to get this kind of credibility from New York, the greatest city on the planet, by picking us out of many other vendors is beyond honor. It’s such an important deal because it’s such a complicated city in terms of recycling.”

About 40 vendors bid for the e-cycleNYC contract and DSNY proffered an extensive bidding process to select the vendor to handle the 15 year contract. ERI began working with DSNY five years ago handling collection events in conjunction with major businesses.

Shegerian pointed out that NYC’s program is unique. As an example he mentioned the e-recycling program ERI has run for several years for the City of Los Angeles. “LA is very green conscious and has two different methodologies. They have household hazardous waste events where people drop off. At those events they have another vendor that handles batteries, oils, paints and so on. We handle the e-waste. They also have drop-off centers for electronics throughout the city and we pick up from those, but LA is spread out with much fewer apartment buildings than New York. That works for LA, but in Manhattan and the boroughs there is a concentrated population of apartments. That’s why e-cycleNYC is the ideal model for a city like New York. It’s been years in the planning by DSNY as to what would work best.”

Shegerian reported that DSNY has already been in contact with over 100 apartment buildings and is finding huge excitement and support in the field for the program. ERI has also heard from many other cities wanting to discuss similar programs.

“When I got into this business in 2005, only three states had e-waste laws,” said Shegerian. “Now 25 states have manufacturer laws and 20 states have landfill or disposal bans surrounding electronics. For many back then it was the ‘green’ thing to do, but over time it’s evolved. We’ve now passed the tipping point when it comes to environmental issues and sustainability. The velocity and trend is our friend now in terms of politics. Most politicians, regardless of party, realize that supporting e-cycling is good if they can make it easy and accessible to the public”

To coordinate the program, ERI recently opened offices in the Met Life building in Manhattan and leased a transfer station in the New York Metro area. Once collections begin, material will go to the transfer station for sorting before being trucked to ERI’s recently expanded Boston area facility for processing.

“One reason our clients like us is because I came out of the Internet business where I co-founded,” said Shegerian. “We have online technology that none of our competitors have that creates dashboards for our clients. In this instance, New York City will not only be able to track where materials are, and are headed at any given time, but also able to contact us and tell us when and where to schedule pickups. It will all be online between DSNY, the apartment buildings and us. That’s how we run our whole company, everything is tracked digitally.”

Like many large e-recyclers, ERI both commoditizes materials and offers asset management services. “We’ve built the biggest shredders and glass cleaning machines in the world for e-waste across America and have spent close to $100 million in technology,” reported Shegerian. “In April of 2005, when we started this business, in the first month we recycled about 10,000 pounds of e-waste. At the time, I said, Oh. Wow! Last month at our 7 locations nationally our over 800 employees recycled about 21 million pounds of electronics in the 1 month. We separate and clean the glass through proprietary technology and that goes to smelters. We shred material to recover all the copper, steel, aluminum, plastics and so on. All those liberated commodities get sold to smelters and processors around the world. None of it is landfilled.”

ERI was the first e-cycler to be dual certified to R2 and e-Stewards standards, and the only e-cycler to have two large, strategic partners that have invested in the company. One is LS-Nikko Copper, the second largest copper smelter in the world which recovers copper and precious metals from shredded circuit boards. The other investor-partner is Alcoa which receives recovered aluminum. ERI was Alcoa’s first strategic venture-capital investment in its 125 years of existence.

“We recycle for manufacturers, or OEMs, of electronics all over the U.S. We have a management program that’s very sophisticated, digitally speaking, and a compliance team that manages these programs for OEMs. Of the 25 states that have e-cycling laws, all are somewhat different, so we make sure OEMs stay in compliance with the laws. We will track the New York volume to ensure compliance for OEMs under the New York State program.”

Shegerian said that the working date for the first NYC pickups is this fall. He had no estimate as to expected volume. “Typically it’s always more than we think and we think it’s going to be bigger than anyone anticipates. If you think of the over eight million people that live in New York City, the potential tonnage is staggering.”