In the parking lot outside South Philly High School at Broad and Snyder, early on a gorgeous Saturday morning, the talk has turned to smoke detectors.
“Smoke detectors actually have a small amount of radioactive material in them,” says Charles Nygard, 49, decked out in a neon-yellow polo shirt and leaning against a 16-foot truck emblazoned with the blue-and-green eForce Compliance logo. “They’re a real problem for us.”
Standing next to him, equally neoned Edward Harper, 53, shakes his head solemnly. “We take just about anything. But no smoke detectors,” he intones.
Radioactive? Who knew?
Nygard laughs. “It’s one of the things I found out when I got into the business.”
The two men’s business is recycling, more specifically electronics recycling, and business is good. According to Industry Leaders magazine, e-waste—TVs, desktop computers, CRT monitors, stereos, printers, fax machines, mobile phones and more—is growing two to three times faster than any other waste stream, and the e-waste recycling industry is expected to blow up over the next decade.
Here in Philadelphia, that boom has been fueled by Harrisburg: Just before leaving office, Gov. Ed Rendell signed into law House Bill 708, the “Covered Device Recycling Act.” As of last January, electronics manufacturers who sell their products in Pennsylvania are responsible for the collection and recycling of their e-waste. And starting next January, it’ll be illegal to dispose of those products in state landfills—the issue being that many electronic devices contain lead, cadmium, mercury and other hazardous substances.
Which opens the door for companies like eForce. “Once there’s regulations that a manufacturer’s gotta do something, there’s a value to what we do,” says Nygard.
Based out of Grays Ferry, eForce has been in the recycling business for three decades but launched its e-waste arm four years ago. During the week, the company sends its trucks to businesses around the city to pick up and haul away their e-waste. On weekends, in conjunction with various Philly civic associations that widely advertise the service, their trucks become all-day e-waste drop-off points for city residents. On this morning, Nygard and Harper are set up next to the Lower Moyamensing Flea Market along Broad Street, and they’re happy to see people driving up with trunkloads of obsolete electronics rather than just dumping them on city curbs.
“I think people are really starting to get the message that this is something they need to do,” says Nygard.
Harper—one of a crew of about 20 eForcers—says he’s up for work most mornings at 5:30 a.m. and typically puts in a 10-hour day. “It’s good, it’s not so hard,” he smiles.
As eForce’s managing director, Nygard oversees all aspects of the operation. But he’s hardly averse to pulling on gloves and helping hoist TVs and computer monitors into the back of the truck. “This business is a real passion of mine,” he says.
Both men say they’ve been amazed at some of the Philly e-waste that’s come their way, including television sets from, well, the dawn of television, and rare, vintage stereo components. “Some of it looks like it’s been sitting in somebody’s basement for 60, 70 years,” says Harper.
At the end of the day, the truckload of e-waste goes to eForce’s 100,000-square-foot headquarters to be “demanufactured.” Per regulations, computers are wiped clean of their data. Toxic materials are carefully removed. Plastic, steel and other components are broken down and sorted by hand instead of industry-standard shredders because, as Nygard explains, shredding creates a large amount of unrecyclable “fluff” as well as airborne particles that could threaten employees’ respiratory health.
Nygard notes that eForce is one of only seven e-waste recycling companies in the nation certified by both Responsible Recycling (R2) and e-Stewards—the two independent e-waste accreditation programs endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that establish strict standards for processing e-waste, disposing of hazardous substances and re-selling materials.
“We have to account for the material not only when we get it but when we give it to somebody and they give it to somebody, all down the chain, so we’re doing the environmentally responsible thing,” says Nygard.
Once the e-waste is fully processed, eForce sells the materials to companies that grind it down into feed stock for raw materials. And they try to keep it all local. “There are markets outside of Philly where we can get more money for our materials, but we’re a Philadelphia company so we want to make sure everything we do stays in the city,” says Nygard.
“Nobody’s getting rich with this, but we can help create a lot of green jobs in Philly, and we’re doing something that matters.”
Workin’ It is a weekly column by Staff Writer Michael Alan Goldberg, who peeks into the working lives of Philadelphians.