This year, three Rhode Island companies are on pace to divert about 6 million pounds of e-waste from the state’s waste stream. But that 3,000 tons is just a fraction of what is collecting dust in basements, attics and garages, being tossed illegally into Dumpsters or vacant lots, and being left on the curb for no one in particular.
In fact, much of what we label “e-waste” is actually not waste at all, but electronic equipment or parts that can be recycled or sold for reuse.
Because electronics are complex devices made of a variety of materials, such as lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury that could pose risks to human health or the environment, the e-waste collection, processing and recycling industry is equally complex.
“E-waste is handled at least three different times,” said Ben George, co-owner and founder of Providence-based Green Penguin. “You can’t just take the primo stuff; you have to take all of it, so the product ends up being handled by a multitude of businesses. Each company can only manage a certain amount of transactions a day.”
In Rhode Island, Green Penguin, and e-waste partners Office Recycling Solutions (ORS) in East Greenwich and Cranston-based Indie Cycle LLC, each play a role in managing the state’s unwanted electrical and electronic devices. And there’s plenty of it out there.
Electronic waste is the fastest growing municipal waste stream in America, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Keeping these items from being incinerated or landfilled has multiple benefits. For example, according to the EPA, recycling a million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 homes in a year, and one metric ton of circuit boards can contain 40 to 800 times the amount of gold and 30 to 40 times the amount of copper mined from one metric ton of ore.
While more than 2 million tons of e-waste winds up in U.S. landfills annually and only some 10 percent of discarded e-waste is recycled, there are plenty of people holding crumb-caked toasters, obsolete video-game consoles and bulky TVs with antennas who want to dispose of these items properly.
This desire to do right explains why Indie Cycle, on a cold 15-degree day in early January, collected 10,000 pounds of e-waste in a span of three hours in a Whole Foods Market parking lot.
Worldwide some 50 million metric tons of e-waste are disposed of annually.
Green Penguin co-owner Jeremiah Joseph called the e-waste business an industry of scale. “It’s a big food chain,” he said. “It’s about transportation, space and labor.”
However, none of the three local businesses working together to collect, reuse and recycle Rhode Island’s e-waste is a huge operation. In fact, Indie Cycle, a small family-run business, doesn’t have much more than two trucks. There’s no warehouse. The two co-owners work part-time jobs, and their most trusted employees are their two 19-year-old grandchildren, Jordan and Jose.
Indie Cycle is an e-waste collector, period. With two to three weekend collections at events such as farmers markets and the occasional weekday collection, the 5-year-old business is on track to collect 300,000 pounds of electronics this year.
“We’re a small business trying to grow so we can do more markets and events,” said Indie Cycle’s Phyllis Hutnak, who owns the business with her husband, Tony. “We’re the face of e-waste collection. We’re the ones taking the stuff from residents and businesses.”
Every spring and fall, Indie Cycle holds collection days in both Lincoln and Cumberland, collecting 15,000 to 30,000 pounds each time. The business routinely holds collections in Pawtucket, picks up at area schools and businesses, and has traveled to North Attleboro, Douglas and Worcester, Mass., to hold collection drives.
All the e-waste Indie Cycle collects, whether in Rhode Island or Massachusetts, is delivered to ORS, which pays a certain cost pound, depending on the item. TVs and air conditioners don’t fetch the same amount of coin as, say, computers.
ORS, while also an off-site e-waste collector, is largely an on-site operation — another step along the industry’s “big food chain.” “We’re like the Sanford and Sons (1970s sitcom) of e-waste collection,” said Michael Mancuso, who co-owns ORS with his son Brent.
Besides receiving a delivery or two from Indie Cycle weekly, ORS also routinely receives Pods and Pack Rats full of computers, laptops and cell phones and non-primo e-waste such as TVs, batteries and fluorescent bulbs. In fact, 85 percent of what the company handles is TVs, according to Brent Mancuso.
But the company’s East Greenwich facility is in line to become a much busier place. On July 1, the state downsized its e-waste collection program, consolidating 38 local sites — every city and town, with the exception of Providence, had one — into five regional hubs, at the Central Landfill in Johnston, and in Narragansett, West Greenwich, Warren and Little Compton. The state-run program is contracted to New Hampshire-based RMG Enterprise Inc.
With a slimmed-downed state e-waste program, the Mancusos see ORS playing an even bigger role in the collection and processing of Rhode Island electronics. The company’s 10 employees now unload four to six Pods/Rats daily, received from municipalities, schools and businesses.
Some 98 percent of the e-waste ORS handles comes from Rhode Island. The company, incorporated in January 2006, has tried to expand its reach into Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, but has found such a move complicated and expensive.
ORS weighs and tracks every piece of e-waste that comes into its facility, supplying each municipality the company serves with an annual report of e-waste collected.
E-waste and its many components — aluminum, copper, boards, wiring, plastic, metal — are commodities and there is an outlet for everything, Mancuso said. ‘We’re a volume business,” he said, “and right now we only have a tiny market share.”
As a certified Responsible Recycling Practices (R2) business, ORS is committed to the responsible recycling/reuse of these commodities. The company, along with its local partners, don’t want e-waste shipped overseas and burned or buried irresponsibly.
Green Penguin rents space at the ORS East Greenwich facility, buying reusable electronics and e-waste parts from ORS before they are moved on to other handlers along the food chain.
“Ben’s a scrounger. He and Green Penguin have an eye for what can be remarketed and reused,” Mancuso said. “It’s a good relationship. Partnering with Green Penguin and Indie Cycle has helped us grow organically.”
Green Penguin was born in 2004 out of George’s laptop refurbishing company. The company now has 15 full- and part-time employees and is the local expert when it comes to reusing and remarketing cast-off electronics. It holds collection drives, occasionally picks up e-waste from schools and businesses, and schedules drop-offs at its office, but Green Penguin’s main focus is finding a second or third home for electronics and/or their guts.
The company sells 99 percent of its inventory on eBay and is a top-rated seller on the popular website. Green Penguin has 3,100 unique listings on eBay, with one to 300 units of each, that sell anywhere from $2.79 to $2,500. The items most sought after, according to George, are vintage electronics.
“We’ll test it to make sure it works, but most customers want to refurbish the item themselves for their own collection,” he said. “eBay allows us to simulate a brick-and-mortar store. It brings customers to us.”
Although the company has physical space on Manton Avenue in Providence, the space is much more warehouse than retail operation. And since most of its merchandise is sold through the Internet, the company is a well-organized machine. All inventory is catalogued and photographed.
“We’re like an auto junk yard for e-waste,” Joseph said. “Inventory management is a big part of what we do. We’re in the urban mining business.”