Rural communities appear to benefit from New York state’s Electronic Equipment Reuse and Recycling Act.
On April 1, 2011, the state of New York put into effect the Electronic Equipment Reuse and Recycling Act, a law requiring manufacturers of televisions, computers, peripheral devices (e.g., keyboards and mice) and a host of other electronic products to create and fund a plan to collect and recycle these items at the end of their useful lives. This “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) law is the 22nd of its kind in the U.S. but it is considered by many policy experts to be the most progressive and comprehensive.
One year later, the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) conducted a survey and interviews to determine the effectiveness of this state-mandated electronics collection and recycling program. The results of that assessment, which PSI presented in the report, “New York State’s Producer Responsibility Law: Reflecting on the First Year,” revealed the following:
• An expanded, competitive marketplace for e-scrap recycling—made possible by the EPR law—has allowed many municipalities to enjoy reduced costs of managing scrap electronics. Indeed, none of the local governments interviewed is still paying a vendor fee for electronics recycling. The new competitive landscape also has increased the number of collection services for residents.
• Residents of New York City have fewer opportunities to participate in electronics take-back programs than do residents in the rest of New York state.
Rural communities in New York state have experienced significant benefits during the first year of implementation of the state’s electronics EPR (extended producer responsibility) law: reduced costs for local governments and residents; increased recycling rates; and increased convenience of recycling. But some of these improvements also reflect the gap between rural and nonrural recycling that still exists today, despite the law having gone into effect. The following suggested improvements to the law and the way it is implemented aim to further improve the outlook for rural areas:
• Increase outreach and education requirements for producers, and measure outreach performance. Currently, manufacturers are only required to provide a website with information on how to recycle their products, along with a toll-free phone number to call for more information. All areas of the state have complained of inadequate outreach initiatives, but rural communities face additional challenges accessing Web-based tools. In the future, the law could be updated to require that manufacturers also provide education through additional media outlets or that they develop and carry out their own outreach activities targeting a certain percentage of the population. These activities might include distributing resources to local solid waste management planning units for the express purpose of education. Absent additional manufacturer outreach, the DEC (Department of Environmental Control) itself may consider a statewide educational campaign.
• Consider increasing per-capita collection targets statewide. Although the DEC has not released its official data, early indications show that the majority of manufacturers had little difficulty acquiring the tonnage necessary to meet their collection targets early in the year. While the law contains a mechanism to increase manufacturers’ collection targets each year for a period of three years, these built-in incentives may not be sufficient to encourage the establishment of new collection services in underserved rural areas. New York could consider an across-the-board increase in collection targets if the data support it.
• Consider providing bonus credit for volume collected in rural areas. Because of the additional expenses incurred from collecting and recycling in remote rural areas and the difficulty in achieving large volumes there, manufacturers meet the bulk of their annual targets from urban and suburban areas. Some states, such as Minnesota, have included provisions in their laws that allow manufacturers to earn extra credit—up to an additional 50 percent—toward their annual collection goal for any material collected in rural areas. New York could consider such a provision in the future. This additional incentive would spur further growth of collection and recycling services in remote rural communities.
• Investigate whether pounds collected in rural areas that still charge fees to residents have been counted toward manufacturers’ goals. As noted previously, more than 60 percent of respondents who formerly charged residents for e-waste collection no longer do. However, it is possible that some fee-based community collection programs in rural areas are illegally part of a manufacturer program. In these cases, the residents of those communities should be receiving the service for free. It would be interesting for the DEC to investigate whether compliance is an issue in some remote areas.
• More public outreach and education is needed statewide to increase electronics recycling. PSI recognized, however, that more detail was needed to understand how the EPR law specifically impacted New York’s rural areas, where municipal resources can be scarce and where low population density creates additional hurdles for establishing collection and recycling services. Furthermore, New York’s law includes a requirement that manufacturers provide for at least one collection point in every county and one in every population center with more than 10,000 people; some suggested this would disenfranchise New York’s small towns and villages. For these reasons, PSI conducted a follow-up survey and additional interviews with local government officials in self-defined remote, rural areas of the state. The goal was to determine whether electronics collection totals were increasing, whether convenience and accessibility were improving and whether municipal costs of managing electronic scrap were decreasing. This report draws upon the results of those interviews and survey responses.
Impacts of the New York State Electronic Equipment Reuse and Recycling Act varied somewhat from one rural area to another, but these general trends emerged:
• Rural governments are bearing less cost to manage e-scrap. Some counties attribute cost savings to running a reduced number of collection events, thanks to expanded collections by local towns. Others cite new contract terms with processors: Where counties and towns were once paying by the pound for recycling companies to pick up e-scrap, processors are now doing so for free, or even paying from 4 cents to 10 cents per pound. Some recycling coordinators estimate that their e-scrap programs are now cost-neutral.
• Rural residents are recycling more electronics, and it is easier and less expensive for them to do so. While the DEC’s (Department of Environmental Control’s) official data are not yet available, rural respondents were more likely to report a perceived increase in electronics recycling than nonrural respondents. Furthermore, where many rural residents formerly had to pay to recycle electronics, they now have access to the free collection and recycling services that urban residents already enjoyed. This is perhaps because local governments participating in manufacturer-sponsored programs are no longer allowed to charge for recycling services, and rural counties and towns were more likely to charge for e-scrap collection prior to the law taking effect than their urban counterparts were. In fact, with the law now in place, more than 60 percent of these communities reported that they stopped charging. However, it is unclear if those that still charge are affiliated with a manufacturer program, which would be a violation. Rural areas, like nonrural areas, also have seen an increase in available drop-off locations since the law took effect, and collections in rural areas have shifted from single-day drop-off events to year-round, permanent drop-off sites.
• Rural residents are recycling a wider array of electronic products. Prior to New York’s e-scrap law taking effect, some rural areas placed restrictions on the types of electronic equipment they would accept for collection, such as computer peripherals. Urban residents typically did not face these limitations. However, the EPR law has standardized what is acceptable at collection points statewide and has created a recycling market for an expanded array of product types, giving rural residents new options for managing more of their end-of-life products.
• Additional outreach regarding electronics recycling is needed in all parts of the state. Both rural and nonrural areas note in surveys and interviews that one of their greatest needs is better outreach and education to inform citizens about their recycling responsibilities and options. Very few municipal waste and recycling officials reported receiving any outside support for outreach activities. In some nonrural areas, the county or town was able to shift its focus from collecting e-scrap to educating residents about the retail drop-off options available in the area. By contrast, rural counties and towns lack large retail centers to serve as collection sites.
• The most remote areas of the state are still underserved but have found creative ways to make new markets work for them. Compared with residents of nonrural communities in New York state, residents of rural areas still face difficulties when trying to recycle used electronics because of the higher cost of running collection and recycling operations in these locations. Nevertheless, recyclers have been able to gather the tonnage that manufacturers demand by offering better contracts to more densely populated and conveniently located areas, often with well-functioning collection programs already in place. They also have started collecting through contracts with large businesses. In the future, additional incentives, such as rural tonnage multipliers, may help attract manufacturers to very remote locations for collection.
However, several rural processing contracts and comments from a representative of a prominent e-scrap recycling firm suggest that savvy, motivated recycling coordinators are able to make e-scrap recycling feasible in nearly any part of the state. In areas like the North Country, rural counties have begun relying more heavily on towns to provide e-scrap drop-off facilities, thereby increasing convenience. They also have teamed up with towns to negotiate better contracts with recyclers.
Several factors make operating an electronic scrap collection and recycling program in a rural area considerably more difficult than in an urban or suburban location. Perhaps most obvious is that the recycling business is driven by volume. Given the costs of fuel and truck maintenance, most recycling companies need to pick up at least one semi-trailer full of material at a time, as this is more economically viable. Unfortunately, the volume of e-scrap at most rural area drop-off locations is often low because the population is spread far from the county transfer station (as far as 200 miles round trip, in some cases) and smaller populations (5,000 or fewer residents) produce a smaller total amount of material than more populous parts of the state.
In urban areas, retailers such as Staples and Best Buy, as well as resale stores such as Goodwill, have been accepting used electronics for several years. Certain local governments have been able to take advantage of retail collection availability. In Syracuse, for example, the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency was able to cease municipal collection of e-scrap altogether and focus its efforts, instead, on educating residents about retail drop-off options. However, residents in rural areas—where retail and resale stores typically do not exist—are not afforded the same luxury.
To try to address this issue, one recycler began recruiting locally owned computer stores in strip malls across the state to act as collection points. While this led to a small uptick in the availability of retail collection sites, this is not a feasible solution in remote areas where no stores exist and where residents must rely on municipal services.
In PSI’s previous study of the statewide impacts of the New York state e-scrap law, nearly all participants responded that residents were under-informed about the existence of the new electronics EPR program and the changes it meant for them. Rural areas can face significant challenges to outreach, including access to fewer radio and television stations and local newspapers; less access to broadband Internet access; an aging, less computer-savvy population, which reduces the effectiveness of email campaigns and other Web-based communication; and constrained financial and personnel resources. As a result, rural recycling coordinators report that residents are showing up to annual hazardous waste collection events with televisions, having no idea that they can take their electronics to a nearby town collection facility year round. Even worse, they report that residents are bringing used electronics to the county landfill.
This text is an edited excerpt from “New York State’s Producer Responsibility Law for Electronic Waste: Impacts and Effectiveness in Rural Areas” and is reprinted with permission. It was prepared by the Product Stewardship Institute Inc., Boston, for the Environmental Finance Center at Syracuse University. More information is available by emailing Evan Newell at firstname.lastname@example.org.