Photo of e-waste collection event via Tekserve
The consumer electronics industry associations have railed against a New York City regulation that puts the responsibility back on producers to recycle their products. While there are 20 states that have e-waste recycling laws that require manufacturers to collect and recycle their products, it's this New York City law that has gotten members of the industry up in arms. Specifically, it's the requirement that for heavy items, producers need to provide the city resident with a "convenient collection" option. Doesn't sound so bad, but the industry has decided to interpret that requirement to the extreme, saying that it means expensive home pick-up services. While that isn't, in fact, the case, it was enough to push the industry to sue the city. And if the plaintiffs get their way, it could have impacts that weaken other state e-waste regulations.On the call were Tom Rhoads, Board Member of the New York Product Stewardship Council; Rep Melissa Walsh Innes, Member of Maine House of Representatives; Kate Sinding, Senior Attorney, NRDC; Barbara Kyle, National Coordinator, Electronics TakeBack Coalition; Bill Sheehan, Executive Director, Product Policy Institute; Heidi Sanborn, Executive Director, California Product Stewardship Council
States With Strong Laws Have Far Better Recycling Rates
Legislators from states across the country have shown support for the recycling regulation. Maine was the first state to pass a producer responsibility law in 2004, and it has seen robust programs pop up since that law was put into place. Rep Walsh Innes stated that these recycling laws move the cost of e-waste recycling from city and state governments - who have no voice in how a product is designed - back onto producers, who then are pushed to design products that are more easily recycled, and made from recycled materials. It shifts the burden from tax-payers onto producers.
Barbara Kyle elaborated on this, saying that in the states that have implemented strong recycling laws, there's a big boost in the recycling stream. Indeed, the number of recycling drop off centers goes up dramatically. For manufacturers with volunteer recycling programs, Kyle stated that their volumes are simply far lower, showing that the voluntary programs don't work for increasing recycling rates, but state laws do.
So, why is the industry having such a fervent reaction to the New York City regulation, when they don't take issue with state laws elsewhere? It comes down to weight.
Electronics Industry Exaggerating Impact of Regulations
Kate Sinding, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, stated that within the regulation is the requirement that for electronics weighing over 15 pounds, such as televisions, computers and printers, producers have to provide "convenient collection." The industry has decided to interpret this to an extreme level, saying it then requires on-demand door-to-door pick-up. Sinding said this was an "absurd" interpretation; that there are many solutions that would fulfill this requirement such as mail-backed programs, permanent collection facilities, recycling events, or even contracting with a waste collection company that collects items on a regular basis within a zipcode, such as weekly or monthly.
It was pointed out that most states prefer to focus on performance goals over convenience standards because this leaves flexibility for manufactures on how to reach goals. That's exactly what this New York City regulation does as well - not specifically stating how the producers collect the heavier items, but that they have to provide convenient collection somehow.
Currently there are 31 states with at least one producer responsibility law in place. In 2006 there were only 16. And producer responsibility legislation is gaining ground in areas other than electronics, including pharmaceuticals, packaging, plastics, and even carpeting.
Sinding stated that there are other aspects of the regulation the industry has decided to take issue with, which it doesn't take issue with in other state laws, including that the New York City regulation controls activities outside of city's boarders by mandating collection even of producers that are located outside the city. But, she points out, that's true of all the other laws - no one state has all manufacturers located within it. The industry also claims the regulation violates equal protection clause, saying it treats manufacturers of heavier products different from those creating smaller - but equally toxic - products. Again, this isn't really the case, and it also doesn't differ from other state laws on e-waste recycling.
What This Move Really Says About The Electronics Industry
Barbara Kyle highlights another issue this lawsuit brings up. "[For] these companies that have on their websites, in their sustainability reports, and in their PR, 'Yes we support recycling,' the real question is do they really?" She points out that by filing a lawsuit, the producers are saying they don't want producer responsibility.
"This court case is not about New York City, really. This is about states being able to compel [producers] to create meaningful take-back programs."
Electronics picked up by NYC Sanitation: 21,840 tons annually (DOS report, 2005) Photo of e-waste collection event via Tekserve
But Is It Harmful for Business?
The question was raised as to how much this will cost producers who will now be required to participate in direct collection.
Sinding stated, "These kinds of questions are precisely the reason why we like laws with minimum collection standards, rather than asking the government to tell how manufacturers do the collection." In other words, it's up to the government to decide the goals for recycling, and up to the manufacturer to decide how they meet the goal. Sinding stated that in this case, the industry interpreted direct collection requirement to the extreme - an extreme that doesn't even need to be on the table at all.
Advocates for the regulations have not done a cost analysis, but it was stated that the city's economists have debunked the cost estimates put forward by the plaintiffs.
CEA Backs Its Stance In Lawsuit
Last week at the Consumer Electronics Show, I held a video interview with Parker Brugge, Vice President of Environmental Affairs and Industry Sustainability of the Consumer Electronics Association, who went into more detail about the position of CEA in this lawsuit.
"It was our last option," Brugge states. "We worked with the city council to try and come up with a recycling law that makes sense - that makes sense for the consumers but also makes sense for our industry. ...Our position really is that recycling is a shared responsibility...the burden shouldn't fall just on one shareholder, like manufacturers."
Waiting Game For Now
Currently the trial is in the preliminary injunction stage, during which the court is is asked whether to stay implementation of the regulations. Sinding states that because of the way plaintiffs have inflated their claims, there is a concern that there could be an adverse interim decision during this stage that could have implications for producer responsibility laws elsewhere. The oral arguments won't be heard until February 10th, so it will be after that date that we find out where this case could take e-waste recycling in the US.
More on e-Waste and the Consumer Electronics Industry
Who Is Gonna Pay For My e-Waste?? Not Me!
How Much eWaste Is Getting Recycled from Major Retailers?
What's Your E-Waste IQ?