Report: NY e-waste law has mixed success across the state in its first year

One year after the state passed what is considered to be among the nation’s most progressive laws to help consumers recycle old electronics for free, a report assessing initial progress shows its success on the ground varies significantly depending on where you live.  While upstate residents appear to be benefiting greatly, New York City trails far behind – with little to no improvement for city residents looking to responsibly unload their e-waste.

The report, prepared for NRDC by the Product Stewardship Institute, indicates that there has been a marked increase in e-waste collection sites in New York State.  But while local governments have been able to dramatically increase the collection options – primarily new collection facilities and events – available to their citizens and customers in upstate communities, the same has not occurred in New York City.  Collection options for city residents remain limited, and with so many reliant on public transportation to get around (and who don’t own cars) – recycling often-heavy electronics present additional challenges for residents.

Currently, not-for-profits entities like the Lower East Side Ecology Center provide the most reliable collection opportunities through periodic collection events and now a new permanent collection facility.  While the city’s Sanitation Department is beginning electronics manufacturer-sponsored collection events this year, manufacturers will need to do much more to meet the needs of city residents, as the law passed last year requires them to take responsibility for helping New Yorkers properly dispose of the goods they create.

The new report is intended as a preliminary assessment of the e-waste program’s first year.  A fuller report will be issued later this summer after PSI has had the opportunity to review the data being provided to the Department of Environmental Conservation by manufacturers, recyclers and collectors in accordance with the law’s requirements (due to the state by April 1 – the law’s 1-year anniversary).  We should be able then to assess how much e-waste is being collected in the state, and where and how it is being managed – critical questions in evaluating the overall effectiveness of the program.

PSI’s report sets forth five initial findings about the laws successes and failures to-date, based on interviews conducted with key stakeholders, including representatives of local governments, electronics manufacturers and electronics recyclers:

  • The law’s mandatory collection targets (i.e., the minimum number of pounds of electronics manufacturers are required to collect under the new law) have been easily met, and have successfully created a competitive marketplace in which private companies are proactively expanding free, convenient opportunities to recycle electronics.  This is easing the financial burden on local governments, which are no longer having to bear the costs of e-waste collection, and has led to a proliferation of convenient recycling options in the state.
  • New York City residents have not benefited equally from the implementation of the law.  Because of logistical difficulties, high transportation costs and low rates of car ownership rates, waste collection in large cities presents special challenges.  As indicated, these and other factors (including lack of incentive for manufacturers to explore creative solutions to increase collection opportunities in the city while mandatory collection rates remain relatively low) have resulted in a significantly worse result for consumers in New York City as compared to the rest of the state.
  • More public outreach and education is needed to increase e-waste recycling throughout the state, and in New York City especially.  In other words – many New Yorkers still don’t know this law has passed, or what to do with their e-waste. The law expressly requires manufacturers to educate consumers about the availability of free, convenient e-waste recycling (with added help from retailers and the state).  Unfortunately, the manufacturers have to date fallen short of what is needed to effectively communicate the program’s existence and specific recycling opportunities to the state’s residents.  This is a particular problem in New York City because of the collection obstacles noted above.  While the mandatory collection targets will rise over the coming years in accordance with the law’s provisions, until they are substantially increased, they are unlikely to motivate manufacturers to improve their education and outreach.  The state will need to increase its enforcement against manufacturers to compel them to do so, and others – including the City Sanitation Department, NGOs and recyclers – will need to provide supplemental education.
  • The state should make collection data publicly available to allow verification of collected volumes and to ensure that collected materials are handled in an environmentally safe manner.  The law was crafted such that extensive and redundant reporting requirements would provide an incentive for manufacturers to establish robust programs and ensure that e-waste will be handled safely, as opposed to being exported to developing countries that lack effective infrastructure to protect public health and the environment.
  • Revenue from the e-waste program should be put in a dedicated fund used to implement and enforce the program.  The e-waste program generates revenues through registration and reporting requirements and, potentially, enforcement actions.  If that revenue went into a dedicated fund, it could be used by the state to implement and enforce the program, including additional and improved public education.  Right now, though, the revenue is going into the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s general fund.  That should be changed.

Sierra Fletcher, PSI Director of Policy and Programs, had this to say: "Just as each state is a little different, e-waste laws vary considerably.  This report gives us an important first look at how New York’s approach is working on the ground.  While we are pleased to see the increase in collection opportunities created by the law, particularly upstate, we are eager to see collection quantities increase statewide.”

Again, a fuller report informed by a review of the data being reported to state by the regulated entities will be forthcoming in a few months.  That report is expected to provide more information about how much e-waste is being collected, as well as where and how it is being managed.  It may also provide further insights and recommendations regarding the unfortunate discrepancy between the relative success of the program in upstate communities as opposed to its more dismal performance in New York City.

A few final thoughts on addressing the New York City problem:

Those of you who follow this issue closely will recall that the city actually enacted an e-waste recycling program back in 2008.  A number of manufacturers sued to invalidate the city’s law.  That lawsuit was ultimately rendered moot when the state enacted the current law, which expressly preempted the city law.  Before that happened, though, the parties had been engaged in deeply substantive settlement negotiations to attempt to determine how a robust e-waste program could be effectively established in the city, including beginning the process of identifying real, viable collection sites.

The fact that all of the relevant parties were already at the point of starting to identify places in the city that would work for e-waste recycling collection shows we can do better than we are today.

To make the state law one that works for all the state’s residents – including the almost half that live in New York City – it is likely that the manufacturers will need to come back to the table and resume meaningful discussions with the city’s officials about how to make that happen.  We strongly urge them to do so now.  It will only be that much harder for them to meet their higher mandatory collection obligations in future years if they don’t create the infrastructure to do so now.

In the meantime, if you’re a New York City resident looking for a way to get rid of your unwanted TV, computer, printer or gaming console, you can find listings of upcoming free collection events here and here.

This coming weekend, the Lower East Side Ecology Center will be holding two collection events: on Saturday at Tekserve on W. 23rd Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, and on Sunday on Delancey Street between Chrystie and Forsyth Street.  Both events run from 10 am to 4 pm.

GrowNYC is holding an e-waste and textile collection event on Saturday from 11 am to 3 pm at 19 E 3rd, between Bowery & 2nd Avenue, and an e-waste and CFL collection event on Sunday from 1 pm to 5 pm at the Bronx Terminal Market, 610 Exterior Street, Level 6 Garage Roofdeck (near Marshall's).

Another good option is the 4th Bin, which is currently the only e-waste collection company in New York City that provides convenient and ethical door-to-door pickup services for both businesses and residents.  They do charge a very modest fee. The 4th Bin supports the critically important e-waste management standards set by the Basel Action Network and e-Stewards Recycler Certification, and are commited to not exporting e-waste to developing countries.