NYS Passes Cutting Edge E-Waste Law

NY's Legislature passed, and the governor signed, what is arguably the most progressive electronics recycling law in the country last week, finally ensuring that all of the state's residents will have access to free and convenient recycling for their old and unwanted TVs, computers and other electronics.

Passage of the e-waste measure caps three years of hard work and intense lobbying by proponents.  Special kudos go to the leadership of both legislative houses (especially Assemblymember Bob Sweeney and Senator Antoine Thompson, respective chairs of the Environmental Conservation Committees in each house), as well as Governor Paterson, all of whom worked extremely diligently to make the legislation a reality.

New York now joins 22 other states in mandating that manufacturers bear the responsibility for taking back their toxin-containing used electronics from consumers for responsible recycling.  This approach not only gets these dangerous products out of our landfills and incinerators where they can contaminate water and air, it also removes the burden of handling this fastest-growing part of the waste stream from municipalities and taxpayers.  Equally importantly, by shifting the costs of end-of-life waste management to the manufacturers, it encourages them to design products in the first instance that are easier - and hence cheaper - to recycle in the first place. Ultimately, this should result in products that have fewer toxic components, and more reusable and recyclable components, requiring less use of virgin materials.

The New York measure takes advantage of what we have learned about how these programs are best structured, building off the successful e-waste laws that already exist in 22 states, including Washington, Oregon and Minnesota.

Key features of this landmark law include:

  • Requiring product manufacturers to take financial responsibility for the collection and safe disposal and recycling of used electronic equipment.
  • Covering a broad scope of products, including televisions, computer monitors, computers, keyboards, mice, printers and cables. 
  • Imposing strong collection standards that give manufacturers latitude to create collection programs that fit their specific business model so long as they collect the statutory minimum amount of waste each year.  The standard starts at three pounds per capita in year one, rising to four in year two and five and year three. Thereafter, the mandatory minimum standard is allowed to "float" (within a prescribed range) based on what was collected in the prior year.
  • Allowing for free e-waste recycling for a wide range of consumers, including individuals, schools, municipalities, small businesses, and small non-profits.

Passage of the measure also effectively negates a nearly year old industry lawsuit challenging New York City's 2008 e-waste recycling law.  The state bill would preempt the city law, the proposed implementation of which spurred litigation because of objections to a regulatory requirement that manufacturers provide direct collection from residents for items weighing over fifteen pounds.  The state measure is not expected to lead to any similar regulatory requirement and is therefore not expected to face industry challenge.

Unfortunately, passage of the long-awaited e-waste law did not come without a cost, as the program was passed as part of larger deal that resulted in major cuts to the state's Environmental Protection Fund (EPF).

The EPF pays for a broad range of environmental programs that includes open space protections, land purchases, clean water safety investments, ocean conservation research, zoos, parks and much else. Last year, the Paterson administration cut the Fund from a high water mark of $255 million to an appropriated $212 million.  This year, as Paterson threatened the state legislature (and the public) with the closings of numerous parks and park facilities across the state, he demanded that the EPF line be reduced to $133 million, nearly $90 million less than last fiscal year.  This at a time when the main revenue-generating instrument for the EPF, the Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT) has grown in the past three months over last year.  Legislative leadership, at the end of an arduous week of negotiations, accepted Paterson's deal in return for keeping the Parks open and passing the landmark e-waste law.

Nonetheless, the e-waste law represents a major victory in another challenging legislative session in Albany and should be a cause for serious celebration by all New Yorkers who have been waiting too long for a free, convenient and responsible way to get rid of those unwanted TVs and computers taking up space in their closets, garages and attics.