Since Level 3 Recycle opened in Brooklyn two months ago, company owner Chris Fede has spread the word about his firm’s free e-waste recycling.
While many recyclers charge to handle electronics, others don’t even take the items, because doing so costs too much. Is providing free recycling of electronic waste even a sustainable practice? Fede hopes so.
“I plan on sustaining it if possible… It’s very expensive to recycle electronics,” Fede said.
Free or fee
If many other companies cannot recycle electronics for free, it’s hard for some people to see how Level 3 Recycle can.
“We’re going to give it a shot. We’re trying to make recycling accessible for everybody,” Fede said.
Fede previously worked for another New York recycling firm before starting his own. His new venture offers free recycling of e-waste including computers, printers, cell phones, wire, metal, plastic, server equipment, and power tools.
“Most people charge (for e-waste recycling),” Fede said. “And they charge a lot.”
Business is slowly improving for the firm, which has grown mostly through cold calls and emails. Fede made a lot of contacts in the industry at his old job, where he was the managing director of a waste removal firm.
"We try not to charge for anything, and haven't charged for anything thus far. We make our money recycling stuff by weight, and also by re-selling reusable items such as networking equipment, motherboards, cameras, certain screens and other items," Fede said. "All the big guys charge for this. We're trying to make it accessible for everyone by making it free."
Level 3 Recycle has three employees including Fede. He’s passionate about the business, which he developed an interest in while building two homes for himself, partly with re-used materials.
“I love recycling; I love that the equipment will have a second life and not be put in the ground,” Fede said.
His business model: Green efforts generate greenbacks.
"We're looking to keep this stuff out of the landfills, help the environment, and make a couple bucks in the process," Fede said.
His new business optimism aside, Fede admitted he might not be able to continue to offer free e-waste recycling indefinitely. Other industry sources also are skeptical about the ability of a company to offer the service for free long-term.
Jim Langemeier, general manager of American Recycling Center, Inc., in Manassas, VA, has been in the business for two decades and wonders how Level 3 Recycle will be able to continue offering the service at no charge to the consumer.
“There’s no free lunch,” Langemeier said. “How long can Level 3 do it for free? Eventually, they’ll have to charge.”
Whether performed for free or not, recycling electronics has a host of problems, including inconsistency of state laws and inadequate incentives for recyclers handling the waste.
Proliferating storage centers
Much of this subset of recyclables isn’t even handled properly when discarded. People don’t know what to do with e-waste, Langemeier said. “You’ve got the leaded glass issue—they’re busting people all over for this stuff. There’s thousands of tons of stuff like monitors, everywhere. There’s been this trend of people storing this stuff,” he said.
A dearth of attention being paid to this issue could be the culprit in faulty reporting of it, as well. And incorrect figures on recycling may serve to fuel debate, working against consensus-building toward legislation that would enable a larger percentage of e-waste to be recycled.
Langemeier would like to see firms get more government help with handling electronic recyclables. It’s a commodities-driven market that he likens to agriculture. Other countries handle this issue better, he noted.
“In Europe they sort everything (for recycling), because their government subsidizes the process. We’re just like farmers; we’re farming trash. But the farmer, who also deals with a commodity, is subsidized,” Langemeier said.
Pennsylvania-based Commonwealth Computer Recycling, which has facilities in Greensburg and Philadelphia, accepts most electronics for recycling, for free. The Keystone State has had an e-waste recycling law since 2011, and is one of 25 states that have adopted such mandates. But those laws vary widely in their effectiveness.
Joe Connors, co-owner of Commonwealth Computer Recycling, said Pennsylvania’s e-waste law is broken. “They don’t reimburse for CRT or tube TVs, which is probably 60 percent of the electronic waste. People are not collecting TVs; or they’re collecting them in warehouses throughout the country,” he said.
The nonprofit Electronics Takeback Coalition’s report on Lessons Learned From State E-Waste Laws gave 10 ways to improve current legislation and increase collection amounts, including making it more convenient and setting up collection goals; encouraging a variety of collector types; and including specific expectations for performance of the e-waste law.
While those working in the recycling industry agree that potentially hazardous waste such as TVs, computers, and cell phones must be dealt with properly, there’s less agreement about how to do it. And it seems that in the absence of a workable federal law guiding e-waste recycling that also adequately compensates recyclers, more warehouses across the nation will continue to fill up with long-dead computers, silent witnesses to a nation divided on environmental issues.