The lobby of Supreme Computer Recycling, Inc. in Lakewood, NJ is posh. At the industrial park in Ocean County, New Jersey, most of the neighboring companies have modest buildings. But here the floor of the lobby is made of brown and white marble. Dark brown, leather couches surround a coffee table, creating a sitting area decorated with live plants. A 42” plasma-screen television hangs on one of the mahogany-paneled walls.
An elaborate presentation plays on the TV. It is highlighting the dangers of electronic waste—toxic chemicals inside computers and monitors that leak lead, mercury and cadmium into the water and food supply. “We just recently re-did the whole operations side of the warehouse,” says Mitchell Runko, Director of Operations. “Everything is top of the line.”
Computer recyclers can afford “top of the line” because business in this fledgling industry is booming. Revenues exceeded $1.5 billion in 2006 and the number of new companies entering the market is on the rise, according to the International Association of Electronics Recyclers.
“The problem is that there simply are not enough recycling companies to handle the volume of electronics,” Runko says. “We replace our computers, and the components we use with them, every two years or so, and most of us don’t recycle them. Multiply the number of people by the number of computers they have and it’s easy to see how we’re facing a crisis.” Runko and the rest of his operations team occupy a small section of the Superior compound, which is surrounded by chain-link fence and guarded by a security team. The 78,000 square-foot warehouse takes up the majority of the property. More than one million pounds of electronic equipment arrive at the warehouse doors each week.
“It’s usually a lot louder in here because the metal scrapper is going,” Runko says of the warehouse. The metal scrapper, an ominous looking machine that takes up an entire room toward the back of the vast building, is the size of a large bulldozer. The machine’s giant conveyor belt draws the dismantled electronics into its belly, where they are pulverized into smaller pieces and sent to a scrap metal recycler. The metal scrapper costs $750,000, and it can only run for 10 hours at a time. “It is a commitment when you flip the switch because it draws so much power,” Runko says. “We have to keep a schedule for it, so it is not running everyday.”
The majority of electronic waste in Manhattan never makes it to Supreme or any of the other 500 electronics recyclers in the country. Councilman Bill De Blasio (D-Brooklyn), co-sponsor of a bill that would require electronics manufacturers to collect and recycle the equipment they sell, estimates that less than 10 percent of e-waste is recycled.
“It is a tremendous problem, since e-waste is very toxic, and recycling programs are not as accessible in all the communities of the city,” says Christine Datz-Romero, spokesperson for the Lower East Side Ecology Center (LESEC), a non-profit organization started in 2005 with funding from the New York City Council.
LESEC estimates that 34,000 tons of electronic equipment is thrown into New York City’s trash annually. So far this year, the organization has collected 92 tons of unwanted electronics at 11 e-waste recycling events around the city.
It is not illegal to put monitors, hard drives and laptops out with the regular trash for pick up by the city’s sanitation workers. Businesses and institutions, however, must dispose of used electronics through dismantlers and recyclers. Whether a computer comes from a business or a home, it is never supposed to end up in a landfill.
Too many do, according to Runko. “I think corporations and government organizations are better about e-recycling,” he says, “but I doubt that all the computers that end up on the curb for pick up actually make it our warehouse.”
Electronics that do make it to Supreme’s warehouse go through an assembly-line of steps to complete the recycling process. Supreme’s 150 employees, who are mostly men, categorize every piece of equipment that arrives—hard drives in one section, monitors and laptops in another. Shrink-wrapped bundles of the old equipment, each roughly the size of a large lawnmower, line the rows of the warehouse. Some of the discarded equipment can be refurbished and resold. Most will be stripped down and recycled.
Workers pull out the bundles one-by-one. On a Friday morning in October, a team of three men dismantle the hard drives of a pile of desktop computers manufactured by Dell. They remove the plastic casing to reveal the colored wires and panels of copper pieces that once served as conduits of electricity and data. They throw the plastic casing into a large, metal bin that looks like a laundry tub at a hotel. Supreme sends the plastic to another company that specializes in plastic recycling. It also contracts with a precious-metal recycling company to handle the copper and other non-scrap metal found on the internal mother board. The dismantling team collects the scrap metal in another bin. When the bin is full, they will send the contents through the metal scrapper.
The hard drives that the team extracts from the incoming computers end up in a room separate from the main warehouse, closer to where the operations staff resides. On the right side of the room is a bank of computers, the word “Blanco” on the monitor. Blanco is software designed specifically to erase all the information on the computer’s hard drive.
“Most corporations are wary of data mining and want all information blanked from the hard drive,” Runko said. “The average individual doesn’t always know that the information on the hard drive can be captured and used in identify theft, though.” Another team of workers, also men, erase the information on the hard drive of every computer that arrives at Supreme. “It doesn’t matter if the computer is recycled or resold,” Runko said. “It’s all blanked.”
Supreme isn’t only a recycler. It also is a wholesale seller that refurbishes computers and sells them to other electronics vendors, usually mom-and-pop shops. The computer must meet certain standards of performance and processing speed to be considered marketable.
“Recycling and remarketing is more popular, and legislators are passing tougher laws because the damage of not handling the toxins in computers properly is getting publicized more,” Runko said.
The toxins in computers and other electronic waste include lead, mercury, and cadmium, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s E-Cycling Program. A typical computer monitor may contain more than six percent of lead by weight, most of it in the lead glass of the cathode ray tube, which is the technology that makes it possible to display images. Mercury is commonly found in relays and switches, such as the ones on printed circuit boards. Cadmium is found in chip resistors, infrared detectors and semiconductors.
The health risks are serious. The EPA claims that consumer electronics may be responsible for as much as 40 percent of the lead found in landfills; when it leaks, it can contaminate drinking water. When mercury hits the waterways, it transforms into methylated mercury in the sediment, which accumulates in living organisms and travels up the food chain to the food New Yorkers eat. In significant amounts, it can cause brain damage in humans.
Manhattan isn’t the only city with a growing electronic waste issue. Statistics from the EPA reveal a growing, national problem. In 2005, used or unwanted electronics amounted to approximately two million tons nationwide. Of that, about 1.5 to 1.9 million tons were primarily discarded in landfills, and only 345,000 to 379,000 tons were recycled. Electronic waste represents two percent of America’s trash in landfills, but it equals 70 percent of overall toxic waste, according to Giles Slade, author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America.
Supreme is one of the largest computer recyclers in the market. They have three locations and a fleet of trucks that collect e-waste. The industry shows no signs of slowing down, which is good news for Runko’s team. More people own computers than ever before and legislators are becoming increasingly vigilant of the environmental ramifications of e-waste.
Within a couple of days, Runko expects shipments from his trucks that have traveled as far as Chicago and Florida to arrive. The old equipment they bring in will join thousands of used electronics already in the warehouse—from computers to telephones—waiting for Supreme’s staff to sift through them and decide their fate. Supreme’s operation today is a far cry from where it started fourteen years ago in the basement of the owner’s house.