The Immorality of Waste: Depression-Era Perspectives in the Digital Age


In Manhattan’s Union Square, residents queue patiently, holding unwanted computers, cell phones, printers, TVs, cables, and monitors. The New York City Department of Sanitation, charged with managing 3.5 million tons of waste generated annually by New Yorkers, is hosting an e-cycling event in partnership with Dell computers. In one day, they will collect about 50 tons for recycling.

My job as Deputy Director for Policy and Planning at the Department puts me in the center of activity. As the day passes, I’ll reprise the same dialogue a hundred times over. Residents thank me for the chance to recycle items that they have, in some cases, been holding onto for years because they “didn’t know what else to do with them.” They then ask, “What happens to the collected electronics?” I explain that all but the most up-to-date, valuable, working items will be crushed so that the metals, glass, and plastics can be separated and sold. Economics dictates that rather than reusing components, we “recycle them much as you would a can or bottle.” Sometimes there’s a pained response, “But people need computers—and mine works!” Many have brought the documentation and original boxes with them. I explain that the labor involved in testing, repairing, and redistributing each item would outweigh its value. The most efficient means to recover value from e-waste is to destroy any computational ability it has, returning it to a raw state.

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