By Paul Ploumis (ScrapMonster Author)
March 18, 2016 11:39:14 PM
ALBANY (Scrap Monster): The city’s most peculiar electronics store may be the shop housed in a brightly painted cinder block warehouse in an industrial section of Brooklyn. There, customers waiting in a metal-cage entrance must ring a bell to summon the attendant, who may first introduce them to a selection of locally sourced compost—just in case they need a bag of dirt to pair with their printer.
Inside, there’s a rainbow-hued wall sculpture fashioned from motherboards. A display case features a selection of necklaces made from audio cables alongside a line of coin purses created out of old cassette tapes—your choice of Sammy Hagar or Elvis Costello.
Here, you can’t buy a new laptop. But you can buy a used clock radio, an iPod, or a Casio Digital Diary with 32KB of memory, “Featuring Upper-Case and Lower-Case Letters.”
Welcome to the ReUse store at the Gowanus E-Waste Warehouse, where every amp and smartphone for sale is some fellow New Yorker’s castoff.
The program, run by the nonprofit Lower East Side Ecology Center, collected and recycled more than 1 million pounds of used electronics last year. It funds its operations—at least in part—by refurbishing and selling everything from laptops to speaker wire.
While the warehouse opened in 2013, it wasn’t until last April that collections really picked up, says Ecology Center Executive Director Christine Datz-Romero. That’s when the city began enforcing a new electronics-recycling law by issuing $100 fines to residents who put their old TVs and printers out on the curb for trash pickup.
Spring is the busiest season for the warehouse. On weekends, the receiving dock sees a steady stream of used cellphones and computers, along with material that is less welcome: cardboard, furniture, sex toys.
“The person tells me it’s clean and I say, ‘Well, thanks, that’s all I needed to know,’ ” says Ms. Datz-Romero.
The center also hosts more than 60 collection events a year in all five boroughs. Staten Island events yield the most tonnage because people drive in with huge TVs. In Manhattan, folks drop off smaller items such as printers and laptops.
Some 90% of the take is typically busted beyond repair. Radios, phones, cables and calculators are sorted into dumpster-sized bins for scrap companies to haul away. Recycling coordinator Hashim Hughes creates 10-foot TV towers atop pallets to ready them for shipping. “It’s like Tetris,” he says.
Vintage electronics are diverted to the vast, dusty prop library. Here, film crews can rent a midcentury cabinet television, a princess rotary-dial phone or a Commodore 64 home computer. Almost every Apple laptop and desktop is represented, dating back to an early Macintosh.
Rental rates range from $5 for a Polaroid camera to $120 for a huge TV, says reuse technician Terry Sta. Maria. Technology from the 1980s, like flashy boom boxes and super-clunky laptops, are the most popular rentals.
The rest is sent to the repair room for refurbishing. On a recent afternoon, one patient volunteer inventoried a mound of digital cameras. Another installed software updates on a MacBook that would sell at the store.
One might imagine the ReUse store looking like a thrift-store version of a Best Buy. The reality is more of a bizarro RadioShack. There are countless peripherals and accessories, stacks of old speakers, bins filled with remotes and shelves of VHS tapes.
There are also great bargains.
Most gadgets, including printers and speakers, are priced well below comparable used goods on eBay. Among the most popular items: iPhone 4s priced from $25 to $70, Android smartphones starting at $20 and, on occasion, last decade’s MacBooks ranging from $150 to $250.
Customers range from parents buying laptops for their kids to artists seeking cheap electronics for their high-concept fantasies.
The store is also popular with gadget-flipping resellers. To curb these entrepreneurs, Mr. Sta. Maria stores high-demand items in the back, but he hasn’t refused a sale to anyone—except for the customer who planned to burn a flat-panel TV for an art project.
“That goes completely against our environmental mission,” says Mr. Sta. Maria.
Ms. Datz-Romero says she intends the warehouse to be self-sustaining. So far, that isn’t happening. About 20% of the program’s $500,000 annual budget is funded by store and prop-rental revenue; scrap companies that pay pennies on the pound for e-waste bring in another $50,000. The rest is covered mainly by donations and sponsorships.
But who knows? If the aftermarket ever picks up for used answering machines, the warehouse is poised to boom. Until then, it’s the place to go for $15 MacBook chargers. Not to mention that homemade “Jam Sessions” cassette tape across the aisle.