Saturday, May 30, 2015

E-waste limbo in Rochester, NY

The Catholic Church scrapped the notion of Limbo a while ago, but NYS is still putting our e-waste laws into Limbo. So, here is a photo (see above) of a TV thrown to the curb near my house in Rochester—broken apart, probably for valuable metals. According to New York State law, as of January 1st, it has been illegal for homeowners to curb their old TV. They should get a fine for doing so. (See “New E-Waste Ban Prohibits You From Tossing That Old Computer to the Curb” or “New NY law requires electronic recycling” or “Electronics recycling law to go into effect January 1”, or” Don't throw away that flatscreen: Electronics recycling law to take effect Jan. 1”, or “No electronics in trash Jan. 1.”) You get the picture, this was big news back in January.  

“Disposal Ban: Beginning January 1, 2015, consumers may no longer dispose of certain types of electronic equipment in landfills, waste-to-energy facilities, in the trash, or at curbside for trash pickup.” “Recycling Your Electronic Waste” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

But here’s the problem—or problems--with actually fining those who put their TV’s out to the curb and thus reducing the problem of these toxic materials getting strewn around our neighborhoods.  Scrappers come before the weekly City picks up, smash the curbed TVs for valuable metals, and thus make these old electronics useless for recycling, instead ushering them on their toxic way to our landfills, wreaking bloody havoc.  I wrote about all this last December just before this latest part of the NYS E-waste law went into effect: “January 1st deadline in NYS could inject new life into e-waste recycling” Back then, I speculated that this law needed to close the enforcement-gap.  

And here we are in May and the law has no teeth, meaning the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation who made the law has no agents who would actually go around to each community and fine those who curb their TVs. It is left to communities to fine these folks. But the communities cannot do that because their codes do not include fining folks for it. The state needs to make it clear how a community like Rochester can do that.  I am still waiting for a DEC enforcement response as to how our City code can include fining those who curb their E-Waste. That was months ago. Limbo.

But, it’s even more complicated than that. The City decided years ago to go around and pick up TVs along with the weekly trash pickups (so they or their haulers wouldn’t get fined under an earlier phase of the E-Waste law) and take this e-waste to the recycling centers. However, because of this practice, it wouldn’t actually be illegal for homeowners to curb their old TVs because (and you got to love this) the homeowner cannot be fined for throwing out an old TV with the intention of landfilling it because it isn’t actually being landfilled. Some communities have services that do pick up e-waste regularly by independent recyclers (not Rochester) and so the law’s language was shaped for this option. So, technically you cannot get fined for curbing your old TV because it’s being recycled—even though the problem with scrappers trashing our neighborhoods and making recycling impossible is a reality as it always has been. Bingo! Limbo!

To compound this issue all the more is that our media and our authorities are very squeamish about the prospect of enforcing this part of the law (fining homeowners) as it is most likely that enforcing it would put an unfair burden on the poor who are more likely to curb their old E-waste because they perceive that proper disposal of E-waste may be too expensive.  When I exchanged emails with a reporter about this problem enforcing the e-waste law as it pertains with homeowners, he brought up this point. Which is to say that this probable burden on the poor means that the media does not want talk about this issue because it makes the press look like they are pointing fingers at the poor. I understand the argument and I sympathize. But here’s the problem with it. The state and all the communities in the state had five-long years to prepare for this aspect of the law. In that time, much could have been done to help recycling businesses educate the public and perhaps even offer incentives for home pickup and rewards for donating old electronics. The poor could be making money selling their old TVs to recyclers who would come and pick them up.  Trash is cash when the laws is enforced.

Instead, we still have an e-waste problem and this law is now in Limbo—a mythical place where ‘problems’ come to rest without a solution because the creators couldn’t figure out a convenient way for the laws to work. (Like the problem of what to do with deceased infants who are incapable of committing any sins but died before they could be baptized (freed from original sin) and thus couldn’t go to Heaven.)

There can and is much that can be done about removing our e-waste law from Limbo. The state should make it plain how the law can be fixed into every community’s codes. Folks should call 311 when they see this toxic e-waste put out to the curb—reminding the City they must have the power to act. Contact the media, the City, and especially the DEC, and tell them that you want this enforcement gap in the law closed in order to create a new playing field for recycling e-waste, thus reducing the threat to our health and our environment—and reduce the need to mine for more precious metals that could be retrieved from our waste. You can contact the NYS DEC about this e-waste enforcement gap by email ewaste@dec.ny.gov or by phone (518) 402-8706 and let them know you really care about your neighborhood not getting polluted by e-waste.

If everyone just pretends we have an effective law, many folks will realize that it isn’t being enforced and go back to curbing their TV’s. Which is what I am observing.

For those who think this issue is very trivial compared with all our other problems, they should consider this:

“The amount of electronic products discarded globally has skyrocketed recently, with 20-50 million tonnes generated every year. If such a huge figure is hard to imagine, think of it like this - if the estimated amount of e-waste generated every year would be put into containers on a train it would go once around the world!” (The e-waste problem, GreenPeace)


* Full disclosure: I am the former chairperson of the Rochester Sierra Club’s Zero Waste Committee. 

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