State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Removing Toxic Electronics From NYC’s Waste

While the dangers of climate change attract more attention than other environmental issues, the problems of waste and toxics also persist—and are worthy of attention and action. One of the fastest growing environmental problems of the past decade has been the rapid increase in electronic waste. As society moves from the iPhone 2 to the iPhone 6, all of those old iPhones must go somewhere. Tablets, PCs, old TVs, DVD players, wireless routers and countless other devices are nearly always abandoned before their useful life is over. Many of these devices contain small quantities of toxic substances. When discarded, these toxics can enter our routine garbage pick up and disposal system. That system is not designed to handle hazardous waste.

Here in New York City, efforts to regulate and manage electronic waste began during Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC program and continue under Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC. This past January, New York City and New York State instituted a ban on disposing electronic waste in regular garbage disposal. New Yorkers who toss their iPhone into the garbage could be subject to a $100 fine.

In New York City, the Sanitation Department does not provide regularly scheduled pickup of electronic waste and since many apartment dwellers do not own autos, disposing larger pieces of electronic waste legally may be infeasible or at least inconvenient. In response, the city’s Sanitation Department has developed a program that works with apartment buildings to collect electronic waste. In a story on the new electronic waste program filed just prior to program implementation, Capital New York‘s David Giambusso observed that:

“While the city will not provide curbside pick-up, 90 locations throughout the city, including Best Buy and Staples stores and the Salvation Army will accept discarded electronics. In partnership with Electronic Recyclers International, the city began a preliminary collection program in November 2013 at apartment buildings. Buildings provide rooms or large bins for residents to toss their old devices. Alternately, buildings can schedule specific days for collection.”

This coming Wednesday, New York City government and a variety of stakeholders will convene a press conference to brag about the results of the first six months of the electronic waste ban. This event and others to follow will help address the concern that many people do not know about the “e-waste” ban. It also signifies an important commitment by New York City and New York State to addressing this very serious problem. What makes it even more significant is that this policy is an example of New Yorkers addressing the impact of pollution we create, even though we do not directly experience the impact of e-waste pollution. Since none of New York City’s garbage is landfilled or burned within the city, the toxics the city is controlling will benefit people living in other states that either landfill or burn New York’s waste.

This points to the need for all of us to understand the interconnectedness of our system of production and consumption and the need to develop system-wide solutions to system-level problems. Consumers alone cannot address the issue of electronic waste. The companies that manufacture and sell these devices must play a key role. I won’t get into the short product lifecycle of iPhones or their planned obsolescence, but if these products are going to be replaced with such great frequency then Apple and its competitors must design the phones to be easily disassembled for raw materials or components to be used in other devices. This effort to recycle should become a design parameter for engineers working on the next generation of electronic toys. In addition, companies should be offering bounties for consumers to trade in their old model to receive a discount on the new one. The production chain from producer to market should become a closed loop, with the product going back to the manufacturer or to an organization capable of making some use of it.

I suspect that the pattern we have recently seen with personal computers may become more prevalent with smart phones and other technologies. PCs have become commodities which have few distinguishing features. The exciting new consumer uses will increasingly be seen in software changes rather than new hardware. That may have the effect of reducing the rapid increase in electronic waste volume. Of course, the growing market for electronics in the developing world will offset some of that environmental benefit.

The move by New York City and actions that demonstrate producer responsibility by some electronics manufacturers are important steps in addressing the complex problem of electronic waste. It is important to understand that these electronic devices are not going away. They have been woven into the fabric of life here in New York City and all over the world. People expect to have easy access to information and to have the ability to communicate instantly with friends, family and business associates all over the world. Walking down a busy street in New York, you inevitably see people looking down into these small rectangular boxes and pretty much ignoring the world buzzing by them. Instead of looking up the street to find the nearest pizza place, they look down to see what Yelp or Google has to say.

We need to develop the public policies and standard operating procedures to make certain that discarded electronics are either recycled or carefully discarded. This requires that we abandon the idea that “out of sight is out of mind.” When a toxic is out of sight, it is a danger because we don’t know where it has gone and who might suffer from exposure. We also need to pay more attention to the use of toxic chemicals in routine production. Again, engineers need to be given the design parameter to avoid the use of toxics whenever possible. This is not a simple matter. Sometimes a toxic chemical can help reduce energy use and so you are trading off toxics against greenhouse gases. What we need is an awareness of the human and natural systems that this product will interact with and the impact of those interactions. In many cases these factors are ignored as not relevant to the design issues at hand. The result is that we are forced to develop end-of-pipeline solutions such as New York’s ban on electronic waste.

This is not to minimize the importance of banning electronic waste from the general waste stream. Banning e-waste will have a positive impact. People will think about the toxics in the products they buy and may be open to paying for non-toxic electronics. Fewer of the products will end up in mixed garbage, making household waste disposal less dangerous.

New York City deserves great credit for developing and implementing this program, and addressing the city’s unique circumstances while doing it. Waste disposal in an apartment is very different than in a single family home. In an apartment, all the garbage goes into a single set of communal bins and you really can’t tell where the garbage came from. An iPhone in my apartment building’s trashcans can originate from any one of over 50 apartments. If the Sanitation Department found a piece of e-waste in our garbage, they would have a difficult time figuring out who to fine. By making it easy for apartment dwellers to dispose of their old electronics, New York City has built an intelligent and realistic program to reduce the presence of electronic waste in our waste stream.

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