In one of New York City’s more than 3 million households there is very likely a worn-out television, printer or computer about to be packed up and tossed out or stashed in a closet. This problem—old electronics and how to dispose of them—presents a challenge to individuals and cities. Thrown into a trash bin and sent to a landfill, electronics pose a potential environmental threat. Stuffed in a closet and forgotten, electronics represent a missed opportunity to reclaim valuable materials. Over the last nine years, 25 states, including New York, have attempted to solve this problem by ratifying electronic waste legislation that establishes electronic reuse and recovery programs. These programs strive to limit potential environmental toxicity, maximize resource recovery, and shift the financial burden of recycling e-waste from municipalities to product manufacturers.
Enacted in 2010, New York State’s Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act, a comprehensive, manufacturer-financed e-waste recycling program, took effect on April 1, 2011. This producer responsibility law requires manufacturers of certain electronics to provide free and convenient collection and recycling services so their products are properly managed once consumers no longer need them.
The Cost of Convenience
Manufacturers make use of a number of collection methods—take-back programs, fixed drop-off locations and community collection events—to provide residents with the convenient access dictated by the law. But the methods that have worked to provide residents of suburban and rural areas of New York State with convenient options for managing their end-of-life electronics have proven harder to implement in a densely populated city like New York where businesses face greater costs and complex logistics and residents rely heavily on public transportation.
“The notion of convenient collection is much more challenging in an urban area such as New York City. Over 55 percent of the residents do not have access to a vehicle, so convenience levels that are standard in other parts of the state and other extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws across the country are not sufficient to meet the needs of New York City’s residents,” said Robert Lange, Director of the Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling. “Many EPR laws rely on existing municipal infrastructure for collections.
However, the New York City Department of Sanitation does not possess such facilities since all department collection is performed curbside, so producers must develop their drop-off facilities if that is how they want to meet the requirements of the law.” This is consistent with the findings revealed in a report prepared by the Product Stewardship Institute for the Natural Resources Defense Council on the one-year anniversary of the law’s implementation. The report identifies high collection costs and the difficulty of establishing collection centers beyond retail outlets as two reasons why manufacturers have sought to fulfill their collection obligations outside New York City. These economic and geographic challenges have created a recycling gap for many of the city’s 8.4 million residents, who represent over 40 percent of the state’s population.
Nonprofit organizations, such as The Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries International Inc. and the Lower East Side Ecology center, as well as national retailers like Best Buy Co. Inc. and Staples Inc., have stepped into the void to provide drop-off locations and small-scale electronics collection events to supplement manufacturer mail-back programs.
But Renee St. Denis, Vice President of Business Development, Sims Recycling Solutions, Americas, noted that even these options have limitations in very urban cities like New York.
“The biggest challenge to implementing producer responsibility plans is the difficulty of establishing a collection network. Most retailers are unwilling to provide the space needed to stage waste electronics—they are simply too large to store easily prior to pickup or shipment. Even among retailers that do accept electronics, their drop-off locations or transfer stations are space constrained, making it important to serve these locations more often, which increases the cost of providing collection.
“Additionally, most drop-off locations for electronics are at municipal transfer stations during special hours or days, and in large cities where fewer residents have cars, moving electronics very far to drop them off is inconvenient or impossible,” said St. Denis.
Lange acknowledged that by weight, electronics represent the largest volume of harmful household products in the New York City municipal waste stream, making DSNY interested in enhancing the level of convenience for the city’s residents to properly dispose of their unwanted electronics in accordance with the New York State law.
To do that, DSNY included as part of their spring 2012 SAFE (Solvents, Automotive, Flammables, Electronics) Disposal Events that began on Earth Day. Held in each borough, these single-day events provided New York City residents with a one-stop method to safely dispose of potentially harmful household products.
“Reducing the toxicity of New York City’s waste stream is a large environmental benefit, so DSNY was excited we were able to collect electronic waste at these events,” said DSNY’s Lange. “We get a lot of inquiries from people about what they should do with their electronics. People, in general, know they should not throw out their computers, so we wanted to include electronics as part of these events because we feel there are not enough convenient electronics disposal options for New York City residents currently being provided by manufacturers.”
Despite a storm that brought heavy rains and gusty winds to New York City during the first SAFE Disposal Event at Manhattan’s Union Square, over 2,000 New Yorkers drove up in cars, walked up on foot, or rode in on bicycles to take advantage of the opportunity to drop off their unwanted electronic devices and other household waste.
Jeanne Krier was one of the city’s residents who took advantage of DSNY’s decision to accept electronic waste by bringing a 1999 desktop computer to be recycled. “I have had this computer in storage for five years and desperately needed the space, so it is wonderful that I was able to clean out my apartment and protect the environment because I had access to safe disposal for my old electronics.”
Earlier this year, DSNY selected Sims Recycling Solutions to accept and recycle all the electronics received during the five SAFE Disposal Events. Making use of three of its 14 North American facilities, Sims destroyed data on collected devices, manually dismantled electronics to remove hazards, and recovered glass, metals and plastics for reuse.
St. Denis observed that recycling electronics is rarely as easy as buying them, but points out that the effort is well worth it. “New York State’s Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act, like other similar laws, has been paired with a landfill ban. This prevents the potentially hazardous components found in some electronics from being disposed of in the ground. In addition, the requirement that these products be recycled increases the availability of recovered commodities, which reduces the need for extracting these materials from the earth.”