Welcome to the first article in an Untapped Special Report looking into electronic waste in New York City. Last week on April 1st (no joke), a New York State law (Environmental Conservation Law Article 27 Title 26) took effect, requiring manufacturers of electronic equipment to accept back items for collection, handling and recycling. Furthermore, manufacturers must also accept one piece of e-waste of any brand if the customer is purchasing a like item. The law also specifies an annual e-waste recycling goal that increases in stringency by year, calculated in relation to U.S. Census population estimates. Manufacturers will ostensibly be  held responsible through a quota, determined by the weight of items and average annual retail sales. Manufacturers that fail to meet their market share of e-waste will be surcharged $0.30/lb.

This isn’t the first or the last e-waste recycling initiative in the pipeline. As of January 1st, 2007, the New York State Wireless Recycling Act required all wireless telephone service providers that sell phones to accept your old phones for recycling or reuse. In fact, they have to accept up to 10 cell phones from any person or provide shipping to a recycling program. In 2015, it will become illegal for residents to dispose electronics.

Statistically, the laws seem necessary. Although e-waste is only 1% of waste, it contributes 70% of toxic waste.  [1] 40% of lead found in landfills is caused by consumer electronics.  [2] And in New York City, only 10% of e-waste is recycled.  [3]

But what does this mean for consumers? The New York Times reported that New York City officials found that “few [manufacturers] were forthcoming” with information on recycling pickup or drop-off sites in the period leading up to April 1st. On the consumer end, the process to recycle e-waste is scattered and ad-hoc. Below is a collage of locations in New York City that provided ability to recycle electronic waste, just prior to when the e-waste law took effect. The major players are community organizations, such as Lower East Side Ecology Center, Sustainable Flatbush and Brooklyn Heights Association. Others are companies who specialize in e-waste such as The 4th Bin and WeRecycle! And yet others are retailers. Only 69 manufacturers have registered collection plans with the Environmental Conservation Department, who compiles the information on their website in a non-interactive, PDF document.

As part of an independent study class at Columbia University GSAPP on New York City’s waste stream, Untapped met with the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability to discuss the critical interface between business and consumer in e-waste recycling. E-waste is a hot topic for them and the mayor’s office is particularly interested in how to implement the state law within the city, as well as long-term tracking of electronic waste.

The Untapped Special Report will be a behind-the-scenes look into the life-cycle of electronic waste in the hopes that it will enable residents, officials and businesses to create a holistic recycling program. We hope the special report will become an open source tool to create greater awareness into a growing environmental problem. If you are a resident interested in participating in this project or a business interested in having your current e-waste recycling initiative profiled, please comment or email [email protected].

[1] Environmental Protection Agency, via Lower East Side Ecology Center
[2] 2007 EPA Report
[3] Gotham Gazette, February 2010