In each newsletter, Sims provides a featured interview of a customer, partner, or colleague within the field of recycling. These interviews can provide an opportunity to learn about the different aspects of recycling, whether from an economic, environmental, or social perspective. This issue’s profile features Christine Datz-Romero, director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center in New York City.
What is the Lower East Side Ecology Center?
The Lower East Side Ecology Center is a community based non-profit organization offering recycling (composting and e-waste), environmental education, and stewardship programs. The organization started in 1987, focusing its work on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but in 2003 expanded its reach and scope through our electronics waste recycling program which provides citywide collection events and a permanent drop off location in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn.
What are the primary areas of focus or activities the Center undertakes?
The Center has 11 full-time employees. The primary focus of the organization is to offer programs to make NYC more sustainable. When the organization was founded the primary focus was recycling. It has since expanded to include environmental education programming with a focus on the urban water-cycle. We also began a stewardship program in 1990 when the Center received a lease for a vacant city-owned property in Lower Manhattan which we turned into a community garden. In 1997 when we moved our office to the Fire Boat House in East River Park we expanded the stewardship program to include the 59-acre waterfront park. In 2012 we installed a green roof on the Fire Boat House and are currently raising funds to install an artificial wetland in East River Park to treat wastewater generated through our composting process and raise awareness within our community about the benefits of green infrastructure.
Where is the Center’s service area?
That depends on the program area. For electronic waste we offer citywide services, but the stewardship and environmental education programs are primarily targeting the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We also are part of the New York Compost Project, a citywide outreach and technical assistance program funded by the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY). We run the program in Manhattan and botanical gardens run the program in the outer boroughs.
What made you decide to pursue environmental advocacy and education work?
I grew up in Germany and was absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of garbage that is generated in NYC when I moved here in the 1980’s.There was no curbside-collection program for residents to recycle their newspaper, metal, glass or plastic. Composting was also not on the radar for most residents. We saw a need to educate our community and New Yorkers about how wasteful this city is so my husband and I co-founded the Center in 1987. Since I am a “doer” by nature, I thought providing people with an opportunity to recycle some of their waste were a great start to change the status quo.
Does the Center have a role in assisting the City of New York in meeting its long-term sustainability and recycling goals?
The Center has been a pioneer in bringing recycling programs to NYC. We started composting in 1990 when most people would give you a blank stare if you asked them about composting. This of course has changed, and the Center has contributed to raising awareness about composting and inspiring other groups to sprout up in different communities to offer such programs. I think sometimes it takes one person or group to lead by example and inspire others to get involved. It only took a quarter century, but “composting” is now a commonly used household word in NYC!
Our electronic waste recycling program is a similar case and point, when we offered our first collection event in 2003 in Union Square; we collected devices from approximately 20 households. However the more we learned about the toxicity contributed to our waste stream from discarded electronics, the clearer it was that we needed to continue growing this program. To this end we partnered with DSNY from 2004-2008, assisting in offering city-wide collection events. We have collected roughly 4.5 million pounds or 2,250 tons of electronic waste since 2003. Our goal for 2014 is to add 450 tons to that total.
We also worked with the National Resource Defense Council and other not-for-profits to educate our elected officials about the importance of responsible electronic waste recycling, which resulted in the creation of producer responsibility e-waste legislation specific to NYC being passed. The legislation was ultimately not implemented, but in 2010 New York State passed the Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act and we were delighted to finally have an electronic waste recycling mandate in New York. With that said, I think the act could have a lot more impact here in the City if it contained stronger mandates to educate the public. Right now a lot of NYC residents still do not understand that it will be illegal to put their unwanted electronics curbside starting January 1, 2015.
How has the Center’s electronics recycling program evolved and what’s planned for 2014?
The program has grown tremendously in the last 10 years. We started by offering events just in Manhattan, then to all five boroughs and in 2012 we opened a warehouse in Brooklyn. The warehouse allows us to offer a permanent drop off location year round and also functions as a consolidation point for all collected materials from events. It has also allowed us to start a reuse program where we test certain equipment collected at events for functionality and then offer them for sale at the warehouse. We believe that the refurbishment and reuse of functioning electronic items can provide job training opportunities and also help bridge the digital divide by making technology available to people on a tight budget. In 2014 we would like to begin offering a job training program at the warehouse.
When did you first start working with Sims Recycling Solutions and why?
We started working with Sims Recycling Solutions in 2008. It is important to us to work with recyclers that are responsible and not illegally exporting or dumping electronic waste to developing countries. Sims Recycling Solutions has both the R2 and e-Stewards certifications to ensure responsible recycling.
When you are not trying to make New York City a better place, what do you like to do?
I am happiest when I can spend time outside. I love to bike, I regularly use a bike here in the City for transportation and recreation – I once bicycled from New York City to the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina. I enjoy gardening, rowing and turning into a serious beach bum when the opportunity arises.