Dealing With New York City’s 'E-Waste' Problem

 Take a look in the back of your closet and haul out that old laptop running on Windows 95 with less computing power than your Blackberry.

In fact, go ahead and open your sock drawer and take out that first-generation Ipod that stopped working after it went through the rinse cycle in your blue jeans.

All of these electronic devices contain toxics: cadmium, lead and mercury.

According to a 2006 report to the Natural Resources Defense Council by students in Columbia’s M.P.A. Program in Environmental Science and Policy, over 100 million personal computers are tossed away every year and about 500 tons of electronic waste is disposed every week in New York City.

While most toxic waste is regulated by the federal government, small businesses and households are exempt from these rules. Seeing this problem, a number of governments here and in Europe have started to regulate the disposal of electronic waste.

On Feb. 13, the City Council passed its own E-waste bill.

Anthony DePalma writes in The New York Times:

The City Council on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would impose a $100 fine on anyone who throws an old computer, printer or other electronic gadget into the trash. Recycling the electronic waste will become mandatory, and manufacturers will be required to take back their own products as well as those made by companies that have gone out of business….

The companies would have to take back enough pieces of equipment to meet mandatory tonnage standards or face fines.

While the bill passed by a vote of 47 to 3, the Mayor will probably veto it; on the other hand, the Council may well in turn have the votes to override a veto. The New York Sun‘s Benjamin Sarlin quoted mayoral spokesman John Gallaher’s position on that: “It’s unfortunate that the Council seems more interested in pandering to special interests and starting a legal battle instead of crafting real legislation that will address this important issue.”

What’s the Mayor’s objection to the Council bill? That it will discourage sales of electronics in New York City, and that it may be unconstitutional.

Let’s hope that this bill doesn’t get mired in political symbolism and silliness. Electronic waste needs to be controlled and other cities and states have proven it can be done. Since 2006 both the state of Washington and the State of Maine have regulated e-waste. Without question this should be a matter of federal rather than state or city law, but in this area as in virtually all other areas of environmental regulation over the past seven years, the federal government has done nothing.

This vacuum at the federal level has naturally resulted in increased activity in states and cities. The federal government may not have a policy on global warming, but Arnold has one in California and Mayor Mike has one in New York City. In the long run these creative local initiatives will need to be replaced by national laws.

In the case of e-waste, the companies that make electronic goods will find it too expensive to comply with different rules in different places. Those costs will inevitably be passed along to consumers.

We need a national policy as soon as possible.

The idea behind what has been called “producer responsibility” policy is that by requiring that manufacturers take back the goods they make, they might be encouraged to reduce their use of toxics and increase the potential for remanufacturing electronic devices.

Some companies like Apple, Dell and HP have begun “take-back” programs and the safe disposal or reuse of electronics, and have generated considerable goodwill for doing so. HP has collected used toner cartridges for years.

The New York City Council has put this issue squarely on the city’s policy agenda and should be applauded for this accomplishment. Council members Bill de Blasio and Michael E. McMahon deserve our thanks for initiating this bill. The Mayor and his team should now move beyond naysaying and work with the Council to develop a plan that is mutually acceptable.

My closet can’t hold any more old laptops—and they are getting obsolete faster and faster each year.

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Dealing With New York City’s 'E-Waste' Problem