Going Green in Gowanus

Firends of Friends takes a tour of the Gowanus E-Waste Warehouse, where electronics find new life.

Gowanus E-Waste Warehouse

By Taylor Smith

Whether you inadvertently treated your Macbook Pro keyboard to a piping hot cup of tea or are looking to upgrade your phone in the name of “courage,” sooner or later we all bid our precious electronics adieu. But disposing of them safely can be tricky, especially with new restrictions on curbside disposal for New Yorkers and heightened concerns about the environmental impact of e-waste. Lucky for New Yorkers, the Gowanus E-Waste Warehouse exists! The warehouse is run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which was founded in 1987 by a group of New Yorkers looking to raise awareness about environmental issues. There you can drop off your busted hunks of metal and know they’ll be taken apart responsibly, as well as buy refurbished items and rent out vintage props for your latest film project set in 1980s Wall St. or 1970s Madison Avenue. We were lucky enough to get a tour of this tech treasure trove, care of re-use technician Carlos.



When you’ve accepted that it’s time to part with your latest fried possession, you can bring it right over to the intake dock. Drop in during business hours for smaller items, but call ahead for donations in bulk. The warehouse accepts the majority of consumer electronics, including TVs, computers, cell phones, stereos, and video game systems, but excluding household appliances like toasters and microwaves. You’ll only incur a charge (of 50 cents per pound) when dropping off forms of media, i.e. CDs, DVDs, and cassettes, to offset the warehouse’s recycling costs. While they recycle majority of the items they receive through third-party recyclers, those that still have some life and a hint of aesthetic value may find their way to either the re-use store. The name of the game, as Carlos puts it, is keeping items working longer. 


The warehouse took in a little over a million pounds of e-waste last year, a small amount of which needed no repair work, but rather just to be wiped and reset: “I see this most commonly with Apple products,” Carlos says, “that sometimes people dump them in for recycling by the simple virtue of not being the newest or latest, but they’re still in good repair.”

Once the items are taken in, the technicians evaluate the items to see what works well enough to be resold or has enough visual appeal to be worth holding onto.


“We have a very large lab that most items, after they’ve been evaluated are taken back there. It might just be the simplest process of booting the machines, like computers for instance, to avoid exposure to the users’ former data we’ll boot from an external drive, one of our drives, where we actually can’t see anything, we’re really just testing the components. Any other item like that we just try to use it for its original intended purpose and if that doesn’t work we maybe do some light disassembly.”

The bad eggs are then shipped off to one of two U.S.-based recyclers: Hugo Neu Recycling in Connecticut, and Sims Municipal Recycling in Brooklyn. “What makes us different is that all the services that we do use are here in the United States,” Carlos says. “So nothing’s leaving the country and everything’s broken down in an environmentally sound fashion. And by that I mean nothing’s being burned or melted down for its basic components. Everything down to the separation of the actual motherboards for the metals inside, is being done by hand.”



As for the trinkets with some functional promise, the technicians bring them to the lab to erase all personal data before putting them up for sale at the re-use store.


“Anything that we want to put back out into circulation, we do a very, very thorough job of destroying any data that may remain. So when someone comes in we can either destroy the data by crunching the hard drive in that large white machine, [Carlos gestures toward large white machine] or, if it’s something that’s gonna be re-used or salvaged we do what’s called a seven-pass, it’s a primitive defense standard method of destroying any evidence of data. basically the disc has 0s written on it over and over and over again until there’s just nothing to recover. But only then do we re-use hard drives and put them back up for sale.”


Laptops, phones, and other gadgets with some life left in them are sold in the re-use store with 30-day guarantees. According to Carlos, the standard 13-inch Macbook Pros fly off the racks as fast as the technicians can build them, with older (about ’09 to ’12), well-equipped models starting at $250 and their more recent counterparts starting at $500.



What truly sets the warehouse apart as a collector’s playground is the prop library, an overflowing inventory of nostalgic knick knacks for set designers and TV producers to choose from. The brains behind period dramas like the Americans (a one-time client), can call up to tour the library and work with an associate for a rental quote.



Carlos is particularly found of this 20th anniversary Mac from 1997, which sat on Jerry Seinfeld’s desk toward the end of the hit sitcom.


“It’s mostly frequented by set directors, people who work in independent films, television production,” Carlos says of the trove of dated hardware. “Obviously period pieces are really in right now, so we have people coming in looking for items again to further build their set to look like it’s 1886 or 1993 or what have you…. What people don’t understand is that their electronics, when properly maintained, can easily outlast their obsolescence.”



“A big part of our job isn’t just restoring electronics but a good amount of prop curation. Seeing what may be popular, what might interest someone who’s looking for such items. Right now, the early to mid-90s are coming back into vogue. Nostalgia usually runs 20 years behind. So a lot of our prop customers are looking for things from that period, around 1992-98.”



The props are also available for the warehouse’s Artists in Residence program. Participants have their pick of raw materials, from discarded cords, which Chilean architect and designer Marcela Godoy weaves into vibrant statement necklaces, to old CDs, to the TV screens that in-house artist Allen Riley uses for audiovisual displays.


So whether it sneaks into the background of an indie flick or onto the neck of a Brooklynite, suffice to say your latest unwanted tech will be put to good and stylish use in Gowanus.


Not quite ready to let go?

You have options, but be sure to seek professional help instead of resorting to urban legends. Take it from Carlos—rice doesn’t work: “I spent a few years as an Apple technician, and so many times people would come in and say, ‘OK, I spilled something on it but don’t worry, I put it in rice,’ and it’s like, now I just have to remove rice from your computer. It doesn’t work, and anyone who tells you it does experienced pure coincidence. When things get wet, phones, computers, two things will happen, either they’ll fry out and won’t work again, or they’ll continue to work but rust and corrosion will develop and one day—could be six months, could be a year down the road, it’ll just stop working, and they won’t know why.”

Instead, check out these repair shops around the city:

Mike’s Tech Shop

120 West 20th Street
Apple-authorized repairs; storage and memory upgrades.

Mikey’s Hookup

88 North 6th Street
Apple-authorized repairs; sells Apple products and hardware including AV equipment, turntables, and more.

Rossman Repair Group

East Village
186 1st Avenue
Mac and PC laptop repairs, phone repairs, and free estimates; not Apple-certified (so prices are lower).


Midtown East
226 East 54 Street, Suite 400
Data recovery and Mac and PC repair.

Wolfe Repair Group

240 Kent Ave
Data recovery and iPhone, Android, Mac, and PC repair.