Final Report: New York's e-waste law has made meaningful gains, but challenges remain

Two years after New York State first passed a comprehensive e-waste recycling law, a report prepared for NRDC shows that while the law has resulted in critical improvements in New York’s recovery of e-waste, more work needs to be done to ensure that all New Yorkers have convenient access to safe and free electronics recycling. Although meaningful gains have been made statewide, the report shows that New York City still lags behind, that the resources dedicated to e-waste recycling need to be expanded and maximized, and that the program needs to be able to adapt to changing market forces.

This report, prepared for NRDC by the Product Stewardship Institute (“PSI”), expands on a preliminary report issued in 2012 in concluding that New York’s e-waste program has been a qualified success. PSI interviewed over 30 stakeholders in preparing the new report, including state and local government representatives, recyclers, and electronics manufacturers. It uses these perspectives to analyze new and emerging issues facing the law and to offer recommendations to help tackle those issues.

Two years ago, New York State began implementing what was considered to be one of the country’s most progressive e-waste recycling laws. Prior to 2011, New Yorkers had extremely limited access to affordable collection and recycling for electronic waste. The toxic substances within electronics posed a risk to New Yorkers and imposed a high cost on local household hazardous waste programs. The new e-waste recycling law, a “producer responsibility” law requiring manufacturers of electronic equipment to create and finance a system for collecting, transporting, and processing old electronics, was designed to ensure that every resident has free and easy access to recycling for their old computers, TVs, and other electronic devices. By requiring that manufacturers internalize the costs of end-of-life product management, it was also intended to result in the design of less toxic, more recyclable electronics in the first instance.

The law, PSI confirms, has been a success in many ways. The volume of scrap electronics collected in New York has increased substantially, with over 44 million pounds of scrap electronics collected in the first year alone. Local government costs have been reduced even as the number of municipalities collecting e-waste has increased dramatically. The number of scrap electronics recycling sites has also increased markedly.

Despite these successes, the law has not been perfect. PSI’s report identifies several challenges that need to be overcome to fulfill the law’s initial promise:

-          There is insufficient outreach and education about the law statewide: New York residents are not well informed about where and how to recycle their electronics. While on-line resources like the website are available, they are not well known.

-          Residents in New York City lack information about the program, and do not have access to convenient collection options: Public awareness of the electronic recycling program is especially poor in New York City. In addition, the collection options in New York City remain limited, especially for those city residents who don’t own cars.

-          The State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has resource limitations: Budget cuts have hurt the DEC’s ability to administer and enforce the program. This is made worse by the law’s requirement that fees collected under the law are directed to the State’s Environmental Protection Fund and not earmarked to implement the law itself.

-          The e-waste program has inadvertently created an uncertain marketplace with heightened risk for both recyclers and manufacturers: Competitive forces may lead recyclers to commit to collecting more material than they have contracted for payment from manufacturers. Meanwhile, competition for supply has led to increased costs for manufacturers.

-          DEC has not released data provided by collectors, consolidators, recyclers, and manufacturers: Public disclosure of collection data is needed to fully evaluable the program’s successes and challenges. Although DEC was supposed to submit a performance evaluation of the program last year, they have still not published that report.

-          The high cost of responsible CRT management puts a stress on the system. As new flat panel screens have replaced cathode ray tube (CRT) displays, CRT recycling markets have declined in value over the past decade. This change has resulted in a greater cost for recyclers.

To address those challenges, PSI offers a number of recommendations to help strengthen the e-waste recycling program for the future. Those recommendations include:

-          New York State should ensure that adequate funds are directed to DEC to oversee the program, rather than allowing them to be used for other purposes, as they are currently;

-          DEC should report on the program’s progress and challenges, and should track local government cost savings;

-          Electronics manufacturers should improve their efforts to promote the program and educate the public about convenient drop off opportunities through its website,;

-          The State should require that all recyclers be third-party certified, or that they meet equivalent requirements, to ensure that electronics waste is, in fact, being handled responsibly and safely;

-          DEC should convene a dialogue between electronics manufacturers, recyclers, retailers, and government officials, to improve the program; and

-          The State should maintain a ban on disposing of CRT displays-the lead-containing glass displays that are found in most non-flat screen televisions-to support the reclamation of CRTs in the recycling market.

To make this law work for every New Yorker, manufacturers and the State will need to come back to the table and address these weaknesses. The e-waste program needs sufficient resources, it needs to be able to adapt to changing market conditions, and it cannot be allowed to leave the residents of New York City behind. This report hopes to begin that necessary conversation.

NRDC Legal Fellow Jon Krois assisted in the review of the PSI report and preparation of this post.