New York's electronic waste recycling program is effective today, but manufacturers must do more to let consumers know about it

New York’s cutting edge electronics recycling program goes into effect today, finally giving New Yorkers a responsible way to get rid of their old, unwanted appliances: returning them to manufacturers for safe recycling.

As I have previously blogged, New York’s law is widely considered to be among the most progressive in the nation – covering a wide range of products (like TVs, computers, printers, DVD players and gaming consoles), outlining strong collection requirements for manufacturers and requiring them to provide convenient collection opportunities to all New Yorkers, whether residential consumers or businesses.

By making manufacturers responsible for the costs of taking back and managing their products when consumers are done with them, the new law advances two important objectives. First, it shifts the costs of managing these waste products off of cash-strapped municipalities and their taxpayers. Second, it gives them an incentive to design products that are easier and less expensive to recycle. That should mean the products of tomorrow that manufacturers create will have fewer toxic materials (such as lead, mercury, arsenic and other hazardous materials currently found in common electronics) that threaten public health, and more recyclable components.

However – there is a “but.” Manufacturers have much more work to do to play by the rules that started TODAY.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers haven’t provided sufficient information to regulators or the public about how we can follow their new recycling plans. And as far as we can tell, they’ve done little to nothing to advise consumers that the law takes effect today (which was also a requirement under the new law). We are delighted to see the much-anticipated law take effect, but if manufacturers don’t follow it – we are concerned they are further confusing consumers, at least in the early days of implementation.

Although the state has been aggressive in pursuing information from manufacturers, as of today, the information provided by the producers and listed on the Department of Environmental Conservation’s website leaves much to be desired. For example, the websites provided by some manufacturers give no specific information at all as to how consumers can return their products for recycling.  Other sites have links or drop-down menus that are not functional. We are pleased to note that – with literally hours to go until the law went into effect – one of the larger e-waste collectors used by many manufacturers (MRM) replaced its prior list of just two collection sites statewide with a comprehensive list of sites by county, including the five boroughs of New York City. Other manufacturers link directly to e-waste recyclers, where consumers can directly drop off items for responsible recycling.

What still seems to be missing from MRM’s site – and most of the others – is any information about how consumers in harder-to-service areas who cannot easily return their items to permanent collection locations (like residents of rural counties, or New York City, where car ownership rates are extremely low) can give back their electronics.

In addition, it may not be clear to consumers whether they can take their unwanted products back to any of the collection locations identified on MRM’s or other sites. Under the law, consumers are allowed to return e-waste to the same manufacturer (i.e., if you have an old Sony TV, Sony has to take it back), and to any other manufacturer when they buy a new item (i.e., if you have an old IBM computer, you can return it to Apple if you buy a new computer from Apple). Of course, nothing precludes a manufacturer from taking back a competitor’s product even if a new item isn’t being purchased. That would be the simplest way to avoid what could otherwise be a thorny consumer confusion problem.

While a step in the right direction, the information provided so far does not adequately meet the law’s requirement to create “convenient” recycling programs for all residents. Manufacturers are going to have to do better if consumers are to have a meaningful opportunity to avail themselves of the new law. First and foremost, they are going to have to start publicizing the program far and wide so consumers know of its existence. And they are going to have to do a better job of letting people in rural and urban areas know about alternatives like periodic neighborhood collection events and mail-back.

As April brings us into spring cleaning, New Yorkers finally have a safer way to get rid of their old electronics. As we start clearing our old appliances out of our apartments, closets and garages, we will look to manufacturers to make sure all New Yorkers know how to safely give them back for recycling. Meanwhile, stay tuned to our NRDC-NY site, where we'll post updated information to try to help consumers make sense of it all.

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