New York joins states in regulating e-waste
In March, New York became the first city to require electronics manufacturers to collect used products, such as computers and televisions, for recycling. Similar e-waste recycling laws have been adopted in 12 states, and experts say most regulation will continue at the state level. However, other cities may consider similar legislation in response to states that fail or are slow to act.
The New York law, sponsored by City Councilmember Bill de Blasio, requires manufacturers to set up a free take-back system to collect and recycle electronics, which contain toxic materials, like lead mercury, cadmium and beryllium, and release toxins into the air and water after disposal. After debate between the law’s supporters and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, officials decided to split the legislation into two parts, one that requires the establishment of take-back programs, and another that defines performance standards, says Jean Weinberg spokesperson for de Blasio. “[The second section contains] the percentage goals that the manufacturers have to meet in order not to get penalties and fines,” she says.
The standards are set in phases. In 2012, electronics manufacturers must take back 25 percent of the products they sold in the city, 45 percent in 2015, and 65 percent by 2018. Bloomberg vetoed the second section of the ordinance, but Weinberg says she expects the council to override the veto.
Currently, no other major cities are considering laws similar to New York’s, says Jason Linnell, executive director of the Davisville, W.Va.-based National Center for Electronics Recycling, a non-profit organization that researches and documents electronics recycling laws. However, that may change. “If there are some major cities that look at what New York has done [and] if their state doesn’t already have a program, then, I think, they will start looking at the New York model and try to do something on their own,” he says.
Of the 12 states that have passed electronics recycling laws, only four of the laws are in effect, with most of the others scheduled to go into effect next year, Linnell says. California’s law, which charges consumers a direct fee for electronics recycling programs instead of requiring manufacturers to collect the items, became effective in 2005. Maine’s law, which went into effect in 2006, requires manufacturers to collect electronics. Last year, California collected more than five pounds of electronics per resident, and Maine collected three to four pounds per person, Linnell says.
The New York-based Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), which worked with de Blasio’s office to write the city’s law, is lobbying states to pass electronics recycling regulations that include mandatory collection standards that set specific goals for the amount of electronic products to be collected and recycled. “We’re very active right now in Albany to get a New York state law passed that would include collection standards, and a number of other states are looking at them as well, including Illinois,” says Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the group.
While manufacturers initially fought the laws, most of them now “accept their fate,” says Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the Washington-based Environmental Industries Association.
Tests of landfill leachate have shown that electronics kept in properly managed landfills do not release toxins into the environment, Miller says. Though televisions and computers fail a test used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether material is hazardous, Miller says the material is shredded and the remains are soaked in an acid bath. “When you dispose of a computer in a landfill, it’s not shredded, and a landfill is not an acid bath, so it’s a very misleading test,” he says.
Sinding says electronics disposed of in poorly managed landfills still pose a risk, and that the old devices are sometimes incinerated, releasing toxins into the atmosphere. “We think there is clearly a real public health risk associated with the toxic components in these products,” she says.