Changes are Likely for the Current E-Waste Law

Author: Luann Meyer

February 24, 2016 was a big day in Albany for proponents of change to the E-Waste Law. Eighteen (18) municipal representatives and e-waste recycling advocates told lawmakers at a hearing that the state’s 6-year old electronic waste recycling law is putting unnecessary fiscal strain on local governments. But before I get into this, let me back up a minute and give you some background.

Electronics have come a long way in my lifetime – and I’m not even that old! When I was born there were no personal computers in every home, no laptops, cell phones or tablets, most families had only one television…I could go on and on about these changes, but I will spare you the rant. Instead I want to focus on the resulting unwanted waste stream that resulted from the addition of all these cool new devices: e-waste. 

In the early 2000s the demand for legislative action to address the increased generation of e-waste was strong, and New York State government answered the call with the passage of the New York State Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act legislation in May 2010 (E-Waste Law)—the Nation’s 22nd e-waste product stewardship law. The E-Waste Law was implemented on a phased approach starting in 2011 with the final landfill disposal ban being effective January 2015. The law required all New York State consumers to recycle electronic waste, such as computers, computer peripherals, televisions, small scale servers, and small electronic equipment. The law also prohibited consumers from disposing of this waste. Under the law, free and convenient recycling programs for all NY State consumers are required to be provided by electronic equipment manufacturers. This legislation was meant to relieve local governments from increased costs related to proper disposal of e-waste, and put more responsibility on the manufacturer. The only problem was that manufacturers found an apparent loophole in the law. Manufacturers that have met their performance standard or goal during the year, which could be mid-year, generally stopped providing support to continue their collection programs, shifting the disposal costs to local governments that were not equipped to handle this extra cost.  Local governments, wanting to do the right thing, continued their e-waste collection programs and were ultimately left with unexpected expenses and e-waste materials piling up.

Don’t get me wrong, the E-Waste Law has been successful in collecting millions of pounds of electronics for recycling since 2011, summarized in a January 2016 report issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that provided program implementation and summary results for 2011 and 2012. According to the report, more than 318 million pounds of e-waste was collected from 2011 through 2014, which has been diverted from landfills and combustion facilities and has conserved valuable natural resources. 

Early on, some local governments retained e-waste recycling companies to collect and manage their constituents’ e-waste materials.  This worked well until the quantities of materials accepted started to exceed the amounts the manufacturers were responsible for, which left the manufacturers very little incentive to pay e-waste recyclers for additional materials. The excessive quantities of discarded cathode ray tubes, or CRTs, from TVs and computer monitors compounded the issue even more and resulted in the biggest and most expensive problem being faced in the e-waste recycling arena. CRTs contain lead, which makes them very costly to process and recycle, if there is even a market available for them. Many e-waste recyclers used to take CRTs from consumers and municipalities for free, but they were forced to charge a fee in order to maintain their e-waste collection program. This goes against the law’s intent of providing “free and convenient recycling programs” for electronic waste, and ultimately, the municipalities were left holding the bag.  Examples of municipalities and their anticipated costs for e-waste removal include:

  • Delaware County anticipates a cost of up to $90,000.

  • Madison County’s annual expense for e-waste is about $33,000.

  • Cattaraugus and Niagara counties each had e-waste program costs of $60,000 for 2015.

  • Westchester County estimates it will have to pay $1.2 million for e-waste removal in 2016.

Not only were CRTs causing problems for the local governments, but also for residents using other manufacturer-supported collection options, such as the programs run by non-profit organizations like Goodwill and Salvation Army, or retailers like Staples and Best Buy. These programs have been viable options for computers, laptops and related information technology (IT) equipment, but have not consistently been reliable for accepting televisions and monitors at no-cost. After more than 5 years of accepting all electronics at no cost, Best Buy recently announced it will charge $25 per unit for all TVs and monitors (CRT and flat panel); Staples only accepts IT equipment, not TVs; and Goodwill and Salvation Army locations have been inconsistent in their acceptance practices.

New York is not alone.  Pennsylvania lawmakers are hearing the woes from recyclers as well and a Joint Legislative Conservation Committee meeting is scheduled for March 21, 2016 on PA’s e-waste law. PA’s law bans TVs from landfills and residents are supposed to be able to recycle their old TVs for free, but the places available are dwindling. PA is seeing a significant uptick in illegal dump sites for old electronics as a result. We may be seeing more and more of this in NY, too, as haulers leave electronics at the curb as the law requires.  Recently I drove by a house that has had an old CRT at the curb for several weeks, with no indication that the homeowner is willing to take it off the curb.  This is disappointing, but not unheard of. 

Is help on its way?

The New York Product Stewardship Council (NYPSC) has been vocal for several years that the current e-waste law needs to be modified. NYPSC has developed a 13-point platform to communicate legislative solutions that will address challenges faced by local governments. The complete 13-point platform can be reviewed here: http://nypsc.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Solutions-Platform_FINAL.pdf  NYPSC is working with the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) to navigate the legislative options.  Plus, NYPSC, Solid Waste Association of North America’s (SWANA) New York Chapter, New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling (NYSAR3), New York State Association of Solid Waste Management (NYSASWM), and NYSAC are supporting a $10 million increase to the Environmental Protection Fund to offset the unexpected costs to local governments to manage e-waste. As previously mentioned above, NYPSC folks, as well as other interested parties, participated in a hearing at the State Assembly on February 24th in Albany to examine the effectiveness of the state’s e-waste program.  Three of the key challenges that NYPSC reported as needing to be addressed included:  

  • Annual acceptance standards are not driving manufacturers to provide sufficient support to finance convenient, year round e-scrap collection,

  • Local governments are facing unanticipated costs in the wake of inconsistent manufacturer financial support, and

  • The law’s convenience standard is ineffective, and lack of convenient recycling alternatives is leading to illegal dumping.

Some good news did come out of the hearings… Mr. Eugene Leff, the NYSDEC’s Deputy Commissioner of Remediation and Materials Management, told lawmakers the NYSDEC is working on regulations to address the problems. The NYSDEC is also hoping to use money from the household hazardous waste program to reimburse municipalities for part of their e-waste recycling costs. This will be a welcomed help, but modifications to the law are critical to the state’s e-waste recycling program.