If New York City is the Big Apple, then it wants to make sure it is a green one.
The city is the first major metropolitan area in the U.S. to do something about e-waste, with the introduction of a law requiring residents and manufacturers to recycle used electronic devices, including MP3 players, televisions and computers.
Some 290 million electronic devices, including cell phones, televisions and PCs were donated, recycled or simply trashed last year. Most of them contain highly toxic materials, including lead or mercury, which pollute landfills around the world.
New York City's law, which was approved in February, places the burden for collecting and recycling those used electronics squarely on the manufacturers.
“This was done for environmental reasons and because taxpayers have been paying to haul those things away,” says New York City Councilman Bill de Blasio, who sponsored the bill.
“We think it’s going to change the way business is done.” More importantly, he adds, “We think it’s going to help manufacturers be greener and reutilize components in the manufacturing process going forward.”
The law did not come easily. Manufacturers feared it would add to a patchwork of new state and local laws forcing them to comply with different requirements in different parts of the country.
Additionally, Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially said he would veto the bill when it arrived on his desk and even threatend not to enforce the law if his veto were overruled by the council. That lead to a compromise version.
Manufacturers, meanwhile, remain concerned about the patchwork approach, and continue to puch for a federal law to deal with the problem. "A recycling solution for consumer electronics should be a national solution," says Jason Oxman, senior vp of industry affairs at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). "It's easiest for consumers to understand. It's easiest for manufacturers, retailers and their government partners to implement."
New York's de Blasio is less confident a national recycling solution can be developed in time to make a difference. "For two years we held hearings," he says, "and it's clear there's no federal law on the horizon. I wish there was."
The part of the law everyone agrees on, says de Blasio, is that manufacturers receive the used items and it should be illegal for consumers to put them on the curb for the sanitation department to pick up. The second part, the performance standards, has passed in City Council, but not the Mayor’s office. And de Blasio thinks that part of the law will end up in court.
New York City is hardly alone in confronting the problem of e-waste. California became the first state to deal with the issue in 2003 when it enacted an advanced recycling fee charged to consumers at the time of purchase.
Oregon’s e-waste recycling law goes into effect January 1, 2009. Connecticut passed a similar law dealing with e-waste last year, allowing consumers to drop off PCs, cell phones and electronics devices at specified recycling centers for no cost. (For a complete list, click here)
The CEA is taking steps of its own. The group launched a consumer education Website that provides a nationwide database of information about how to find a local place to recycle it.
Oxman says these “voluntary industry initiatives,” are similar to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program and show the industry’s willingness to work with all interested parties.
"What we've really seen is the industry has come around," says Kate Sindin of the National Resources Defense Council. "They're beginning to come together to develop solutions to the problem, forming companies to take back and recycle their products."
If electronics recycling is a problem now, it is rapidly becoming a bigger one. Consumers will replace tens of millions of analog TVs with digital sets in the the coming year, as the government's official adoption of a digital standard approaches in February 2009.
Were it not for its new law, New York might have TVs sets cluttering its curbs the way aluminum and plastic bottles did two decades ago before that recycling law was adopted.