Make It, Take It

New York pins e-waste responsibility on manufacturers.

Tension is Building in New York City over an electronics-recycling bill that places the responsibility for collection of unwanted electronics on manufacturers. In February, the New York City Council approved a bill that would, beginning in 2010, fine any New Yorker $100 for throwing electronics — including televisions, computers, MP3 players or printers — into the trash. It also would fine manufacturers for not meeting mandatory tonnage standards.

“It is time for manufacturers to take responsibility for the impact their products have on the environment,” says Bill de Blasio, City Council member and lead sponsor of the bill. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), New York City residents buy nearly 90,000 tons of electronics each year, while disposing of nearly 25,000 tons — at the taxpayers' expense.

“This legislation will provide a way to recycle this electronic waste, and prevent it from pumping toxic chemicals into our air and water,” says Christine C. Quinn, speaker for the City Council. “And as an added bonus, it put the responsibility for recycling on the manufacturer, preventing further burden on consumers or taxpayer dollars.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has openly opposed the bill, despite favoring the implementation of e-waste recycling. He has up to 30 days from the day of the bill's approval to veto it. Jason Post, deputy press secretary for the mayor, says Bloombeg is expected to veto the bill because he believes it could violate the interstate Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. “Manufacturers will be held responsible for actions beyond their control,” Post says.

Under the approved bill, manufacturers will have to submit annual reports to the city. They will have to meet certain recycling requirements based on the average amount of electronics they sold in the city during the previous three years. By 2012, they would have to recycle an amount equal to at least 25 percent of the tonnage sold. In 2015, the requirement would increase to 45 percent and, in 2018, to 65 percent. Manufacturers failing to meet the thresholds will be fined $50,000 for each percentage point that they fall short. Among the possible fines, manufacturers caught improperly disposing of electronic equipment would be fined $1,000 for each violation, beginning in 2009.

Post says the thresholds were arbitrarily set, and that the City Council did not have sufficient information to ascertain whether the thresholds were achievable. The mayor's office proposed a two-year study to investigate realistic goals of recovering e-waste, but the Council overlooked it in favor of passing the current bill.

The city has a history of setting unrealistic recycling goals, Post says. In 1989, the city passed local law 19, which set recycling goals that turned out to be unreachable, Post adds, and led to years of litigation.

If Bloomberg vetoes the bill, the Council would need a two-thirds majority vote to overturn it. The Council approved the bill by a 47-3 margin; so garnering enough support for an overturn of the veto appears likely. If the veto is overturned, Bloomberg's administration would decline to enforce the new law, Posts explains, because the administration considers it illegal.

The Council could then take the case to the New York State Court of Appeals and sue the administration to compel it to enforce the law. In 2006, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, ruled the city could refuse to enforce a law that it thought was unconstitutional or violated the city's charter. If the bill stands, New York would become the first major city to pass e-waste legislation that targets manufacturers. Ten states currently have similar legislation.

“I'm proud to be a part of the effort battling against the growing problem of toxic electronic waste, and I'm hopeful the rest of the country will follow suit,” de Blasio says.