Michael Saunders Turns Old Tech New

In October we launched a monthly interview series ­­— Citymakers ­— to introduce New Yorkers working outside the public eye to address the city’s needs and craft its future. In the first installment, outdoor ad painter Jason Coatney let us in on the technique behind his age-old trade and the unique perspective his work on ad walls provides onto worlds below.

Today, we feature another modern bent on an ancient profession: e-waste management. Couple the always-impending arrival of the the newest iPhone, XBOX, or Kindle and the planned obsolescence of consumer culture and you get an ever-increasing rate of once-groundbreaking technologies turned discarded ones. While electronic waste makes up only 1% of landfills’ volume, the EPA estimates it accounts for at least 70% of their toxins. Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC plan aims to eliminate the City’s contributions to both these figures by sending zero waste of any kind to landfills by 2030. That means recovering sometimes hazardous yet very valuable materials to send back to manufacturers, or better yet, for total reuse through expanded e-waste recycling. One step in that direction: on April 1 of this year, it became illegal to dispose of consumer electronics via curbside trash removal.

To hear more about e-waste collections in the city, we spoke with Michael Saunders, the Operations Manager at the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s E-Waste Warehouse in Gowanus. Saunders describes the challenges of handling 23 tons of e-waste a month and lays out the array of services the warehouse provides to residents across the city — from directions on responsibly recycling batteries to a robust Reuse Store and prop shop where you can find anything from original Macintosh computers to vintage LP turntables. –B.P.

Michael Saunders awaits e-waste drop offs
Ben Pardee (BP):

How did you become interested in electronics and e-waste?

Michael Saunders (MS):

I’ve had a love for technology my entire life. I have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and I used to work in corporate IT before coming to the Lower East Side Ecology Center E-Waste Warehouse. I think it’s really interesting to see technology’s life cycle, from creation all the way to recycling.

BP:

What does your job entail on a daily basis?

MS:

I am the operations manager here, and I’m tasked with improving our productivity and output. We don’t have many workers — the current staff of the warehouse is only three — so my main mission right now is to improve efficiency. We also get a lot of help from volunteers and interns, but you don’t have the slated amount of time with them that you have with a paid staffer.

Miscellaneous computer parts are collected in large cardboard bins to be shipped out for recycling. | Photo by Nick Normal
BP:

What services does the warehouse provide?

MS:

The City has partnered with a number of facilities like ours for two main reasons: to responsibly recycle electronic waste and conduct outreach and training.

We immediately know that most of the pieces that come in will need to be recycled because they’re too old or damaged. We make sure that those are given to a recycler that we have validated and can trust.

There are a few things that we put aside as candidates for reuse, and interns and volunteers work to refurbish them. If they can fix them, we bring them to our Reuse Store for sale. It’s not always about the bottom-line, but our sales allow us to offset costs and keep the lights on.

We also have a robust schedule of weekend recycling events outside the warehouse. Sometimes people can’t get to this facility, so we want to service each neighborhood in the city — we touch each and every borough. This fall we have about 22 of those events. We work with community leaders to get the word out and make sure people are responsibly recycling their materials.

On weekends, warehouse staff hold recycling events all over the city to serve residents that are not able to make it to Gowanus. | Photo courtesy of Lower East Side Ecology Center
MS:

We also add value through the programming that occurs here. We are really trying to have more training sessions where the community can come in and learn about the potential hazards with e-waste, whether it’s batteries or the cathode ray tube TVs that can be very hazardous.

We have an artist-in-residency program as well; in August Marcela Godoy showed off her work based on reusable materials that we took in at this facility. And it’s very important to us that our volunteers and interns have a chance to grow and learn in return for their time, so each day we train them at different stations. One day they might repair audio equipment, the next day maybe Macs or iPods.

Pallets of electronics are stacked, wrapped, and weighed before being shipped off to recyclers. | Photo by Nick Normal
BP:

What items do you accept for recycling?

MS:

We accept anything from computers to mobile devices, A/V equipment, and batteries. We don’t accept medical equipment or household appliances. The one thing that we do take that’s a negative for us is televisions, because the recyclers actually charge us to recycle them. There’s new legislation where you get a nice fine if you put your television on the curb for trash pickup, so we take those in as a free service to the community. There are very few other places that accept them without size restrictions or fees.

Original Macintosh computers (pictured) and other non-working vintage items are kept in the prop shop for film, TV, and theater rentals. | Photo by Nick Normal
BP:

Is every item that doesn’t make it into the Reuse Store recycled?

MS:

No, some things we like to keep around as conversational pieces or decoration, like an old Singer sewing machine. We also set aside interesting vintage items for prop rental. The film industry has given us a great revenue stream — we’ve seen an increase in our rentals and sales to TV and film producers, so that’s something we’re focused on for the future. We actually just had the television show Person of Interest shot here.

The Reuse Store features video games, refurbished computers, assorted charging cords, and much more | Photo by Nick Normal
BP:

What do you find most interesting about your work?

MS:

Its unconventional nature. You don’t have the kind of rigidity of the suit-and-tie corporate environment I came from. People come into the store every day looking for deals, so you can’t have a hard-coated attitude towards them.

And then there’s the stuff that comes in. Every day you’re going to get something completely different than the next. You never really know what’s going to be put on the dock. Some days we get some gems — just amazing, amazing pieces, like a brand new Blu-ray player — that we stick right in the store or the prop locker. Other days everything might get recycled.

BP:

How does dealing with recycling and waste affect your relationship with the city?

MS:

My eyes are definitely now open to deficits in terms of lack of awareness and resources. I commute from Floral Park on Long Island, so those are the kinds of things that I notice coming into the city and traveling around. Just the other day I saw electronics thrown across someone’s front lawn in the Bronx. Maybe if I wasn’t at a facility like this, I wouldn’t notice or think about what could happen with those materials.

Michael Saunders is the Operations Manager at the Lower East Side Ecology Center E-Waste Warehouse.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.

Series

Citymakers

New Yorkers working outside the public eye to address the city’s daily needs and craft its future.