Gotham Gazette

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Tackling E-Waste

This article discusses one aspect of garbage in New York City. To figure out what you would do about the piles of e-waste and other refuse New Yorkers generate every day, play Gotham Gazette's Garbage Game.

Got an old computer in your closet or a spare television you'd like to get rid of? Many of us do, but we also know that disposing of it poses real risks to the environment.

But we now have a chance to reduce that risk with a ground-breaking bill, Intro. 104, which would put the responsibility on product manufacturers.

New York City has historically been a pioneer when it comes to improving the health and well-being of its citizens. We were the first city in the world to ban smoking in indoor public places and recently passed a major bill to fight global warming.

We should continue our efforts to protect the environment by making sure toxic electronics are recycled instead of adding to the millions of tons of trash New Yorkers throw out every day.

A Growing Problem

The amount of electronic waste (e-waste) in New York City and around the country is skyrocketing. Every year New York City collects and must dispose of more than 25,000 tons of discarded televisions, computers and other electronic equipment, which together comprise the fastest growing part of the municipal waste stream. These items can contain mercury, lead, cadmium and other hazardous materials, which can release dangerous toxins into our air and water when burned or deposited in landfills improperly.

Once a computer has reached the end of its lifespan, it is not only expensive to truck away, but it takes up already dwindling space in landfills. This type of waste is highly toxic, contaminating and polluting the environment and putting sanitation workers at risk. That is why the City Council should pass legislation to reduce the amount of this highly toxic material in our landfills.

Intro 104, the Electronic Equipment Collection, Recycling and Reuse Act, which I am sponsoring in the City Council, would require manufacturers to collect, recycle or reuse e-waste generated in the city at no expense to the consumer. The bill, which the Natural Resources Defense Councilhelped craft, would give manufacturers the flexibility to develop a free take-back plan that is most efficient for them. Currently manufacturers bear none of the financial burden or responsibility for safely managing e-waste, which includes computers, televisions and portable digital music players.

The problem of e-waste management is growing rapidly. Between 1985 and 2001 the sales of electronics in the U.S. more than tripled. Over 30,000 tons of electronic waste and small appliances traveled through our city's waste stream in 2004. New York City pays $6.4 million a year to export these materials to neighboring states for disposal in landfills or incineration in Newark.

Toxic Trash

E-waste is different from other types of municipal waste because it often contains hazardous lead, mercury and cadmium. As anyone who has tried to move one can appreciate, an average television can contain up to seven pounds of lead.

Currently, e-waste left on the curb for garbage collection is picked up by sanitation workers and crushed in the city's packer trucks. This can expose workers to toxic lead dust, which is released when the glass of television and computer monitors shatters.

Many electronics disposed of in the household trash in Manhattan are burned at the Newark Incinerator only about 10 miles away -- a distance easily traveled by mercury, dioxin and other toxic emissions.

Burying the increasing amounts of waste does not offer a viable solution either. Despite being a relatively small part of the waste stream, the Environmental Protection Agencyestimates that electronics are the source of 40 percent of the lead found in landfills which, if improperly managed or maintained, could lead to groundwater contamination by mercury, lead, cadmium, and other toxic components in e-waste.

The Solution

Some critics will say Intro. 104 would place too many demands on manufacturers, yet many companies are already far along in implementing plans for taking back and recycling e-waste.

Dell, for example, has already developed its own recycling program, including a free mail-back program for all of its old computers. Tod Arbogast, Dell's director of sustainable business, summed up the company's new found green philosophy when he said: "We've taken responsibility for design, manufacturing and end of life disposal... We recognize our responsibility to recycle the products we make and sell."

Under Intro. 104, manufacturers are free to develop the e-waste management programs that work best for them, so long as they meet the bill's strong collection requirements. For example, some companies, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, would likely continue to make use of their existing mail-back programs. Other options that might be used -- either on their own or in combination with other programs -- include collection events, partnerships with retailers or scheduled curbside pickups.

This bill not only ensures that electronics are recycled, but also correctly begins to shift the cost of handling electronic waste from city taxpayers to the manufacturers of that waste. Making manufacturers accountable will give them an incentive to make more environmentally friendly products, decrease recycling costs and reduce the level of e-waste arriving at traditional waste sites, such as landfills.

Taking the Lead

I have sponsored several successful e-waste recycling events in Brooklyn with the Lower East Side Ecology Center.

Our last e-waste drive in Park Slope netted 22,000 pounds of e-waste over a single weekend. These sporadic activities are a start, but they are not enough. A more comprehensive plan is necessary for a city with a population over 8 million and growing and in an era when electronics play an ever-increasing role in our lives.

The New York City bill is the first e-waste bill introduced in the U.S. at the municipal level and would be one of the toughest such laws in the nation. The city can and should set the standard for national legislation on this issue, as the rest of the nation often follows our innovative lead.

Just as Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered an ambitious environmental agenda for the city through his plan for sustainability, New York City should also become a leader on e-waste by passing Intro 104.

Bill de Blasio is the councilmember for the 39th Council District in Brooklyn, which encompasses Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Columbia Street, Park Slope, Winsor Terrace, Kensington and Boro Park. De Blasio joined the City Council in 2002, and currently chairs its General Welfare Committee. He recently declared his candidacy for Brooklyn borough president in 2009.  

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