Electronic Waste and Local Governments

By Jill Luther, NYSAC Program Administrator
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a term for electronic products that have reached the end of their useful life. As technology advances we are seeing an increase in the generation of e-waste. This waste includes no longer wanted, broken, or obsolete devices such as old computers, TVs, fax machines, VCRs, and DVD players. In recent years, the management of e-waste has dramatically changed and the law now requires these items to be recycled in an environmentally responsible way, rather than placed in the trash.

Recycling e-waste protects our health and the environment by diverting thousands of pounds of hazardous waste from landfills and incinerators, and preventing toxic chemicals and elements like lead, mercury and cadmium from contaminating our valuable natural resources.

The New York State Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act was signed into law on May 28, 2010 and has been in effect since 2011. It requires manufacturers to manage and fund programs for the collection and recycling of e-waste in New York State. This law is intended, in part to, relieve local municipalities of the costly burden of managing hazardous e-waste and provide free and convenient recycling of electronics to consumers and businesses through-out the state. The initial law focused primarily on commercial e-waste, however beginning January 1, 2015, the Act went further and prohibited household e-waste from being placed in the trash or at the curbside for trash pickup.

Electronic equipment manufacturers who sell in New York State are responsible for providing free and convenient recycling collection for their products. When consumers purchase new electronic devices (covered under the Act), they may also drop off one piece of similar e-waste of any manufacturer's brand, and manufactures are required to accept it for recycling or reuse. Each manufacturer must also achieve goals set by the state for the minimum amount of e-waste they collect annually, or pay a penalty.

Following the ban, due to both programmatic struggles and a lack of manufacturer support, a growing number of local municipal solid waste systems have been faced with bearing more of the financial responsibility for continued e-waste collection. Residents either turn to their local governments for assistance, or out of frustration, are leaving TVs and electronics on the side of the road where municipal Departments of Public Works (DPWs) have to pick it up. In either case, the local municipality is tasked with managing this waste.

Municipalities contract with recyclers for the removal of the e-waste they collect. These contracts generally include a negotiated price the municipality will pay to the recycler on a per ton basis, for their services.

Recyclers have two primary options for generating revenue off of the e-waste they collect from local governments. Typically, the e-waste is dismantled and the valuable components (like precious metals used in computers) are sold. The manufacturers may also purchase the e-wase (by weight) from the recycler, to satisfy the minimum statemandated performance standards for e-waste collection.

Once the recyclers have extracted all possible value from the e-waste collected, (through salvage or selling to manufactures) they reimburse the municipality for pennies on the pound of what they took. This small reimbursement generally does little to reduce the financial burden on local governments.

Approximately 70% of the total weight of e-waste collected is comprised of Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs), and due to the toxic chemicals contained within them they have little value and are costintensive to recycle. To further compound this issue, the commodity market is in constant fluctuation, meaning the price received for the salvageable elements of e-waste changes regularly, impacting the demand for the salvaged components.

At the time the Act was drafted, experts underestimated the volume of electronics in the marketplace, particularly electronics containing CRTs. There are reports that some recyclers are stockpiling CRTs to dispose of them if (or when) an outlet develops, creating dangerous environmental conditions in the meantime.

The Act overall has succeeded in increasing e-waste recovery, however, the requirements for manufacturer collection are not keeping pace with the amount of e-waste being generated. Once the required performance standard has been met, the manufacturer has little incentive to continue paying the recycler for these products, which means the recycler either stops accepting e-waste from local governments or charges more for continued service.

Although still in compliance with current law, insufficient manufacturer support is causing instability in the electronics recycling market for counties and local governments. Municipalities, therefore, are still facing significant costs to comply with the Act's e-waste disposal ban.

The 2016/17 enacted New York State Budget provides a $3 million allocation out of the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) appropriation for municipal recycling and waste reduction projects. It is anticipated that this money will be made available to local governments for reimbursement toward the cost of e-waste recycling programs. The budget also expands eligible uses for EPF funding to include marketing for a secondary productive reuse of CRTs. This reimbursement is a great step forward, but will not fully eliminate the cost to local governments and still fails to meet the original intent of the law, which is to relieve local governments of the costly burden of managing e-waste, and to provide free and convenient recycling of e-waste to consumers and businesses. For additional information on this funding, please contact the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.