Court showdown looms for NYC electronics law

NEW YORK -- A federal judge in a Lower Manhattan courthouse will hear arguments this month about whether a sweeping electronic-waste recycling program should be allowed to start in mid-February.

The New York City law requiring manufacturers to collect and recycle electronic goods sold in the city limits was slated to kick in last June, but it has been delayed by legal wrangling. Oral arguments are set for Jan. 19.

Program supporters say the law is unremarkable, resembling ongoing e-waste efforts in states that aim to keep toxic metals from consumer electronics out of landfills. But two industry groups -- the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) -- say the city has overstepped its authority by attempting to regulate commerce beyond its borders.

"The fact that it is by far the most extreme e-waste takeback recycling program is one reason why it is illegal," said James Slaughter, the Washington-based attorney for the industry groups. "It's really the effort of one city to place a huge new recycling effort on an entire industry."

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped draft the law, and the Electronics Takeback Coalition disagree. "We've done a lot of research on this point, and we think that this law is no different than the laws of 19 other states with which manufacturers claim to be happily complying," said NRDC attorney Kate Sinding.


At issue are "producer responsibility laws" that Minnesota, New Jersey, Texas, Virginia and 15 other states have passed in the absence of federal regulation to dictate how discarded televisions, computers, cell phones and other electronic devices should be collected and recycled. New York City is the only municipality with a major e-waste law.

But CEA and ITIC maintain that the city's law is far different from the states' programs in that it puts the entire burden of collecting and processing electronic waste on manufacturers, with no cost- or burden-sharing for consumers, retailers or government agencies.

The New York law in principle allows manufacturers to come up with their own plans for collecting materials from the city's more than 8 million residents. But regulations to fit the new legislation leave manufacturers with few options for doing so. Curbside pickup is banned, and any mail-in programs for items more than 15 pounds in weight are out, as they are deemed too inconvenient for city residents.

Electronics makers say all that is left is on-demand, door-to-door pickup, which is expensive and a logistical nightmare for Apple, Sony, Panasonic, Dell, Samsung and other manufacturers worldwide that are now hoping to have the law tossed out.

Lawyers for the city have suggested that the industry could dispatch "peapod trucks" to collect goods. CEA estimates that doing so would cost the industry $200 million a year. The city has pledged to be open-minded and lenient in reviewing manufacturers' recycling plans, but those pledges hold little solace for companies facing stiff penalties for noncompliance.

"Anyone who has spent any time in New York City knows the challenge of having to dispatch fleets of trucks and workers to go up five story walk-ups and other buildings to go to individuals' apartments to collect, on demand, used electronics," Slaughter said. "No one has done any program remotely like that."

In briefs filed last month, plaintiffs' lawyers argue that the law violates constitutional provisions governing interstate commerce.

Attorneys cite USA Recycling Inc. v. Town of Babylon, a 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 1995 upholding the principle that garbage collection should be the responsibility of local government. New York's sanitation workers union has come out against the law and on the side of the manufacturers, arguing that they are best placed to collect and process electronic waste.

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.