One Small Step for Electronic Waste

The sensible way to handle the growing load of electronic waste — televisions, computers, printers and other no longer new technology — is to make manufacturers responsible for their proper disposal.

Much of the equipment contains toxic substances, like mercury, lead and cadmium that can poison soil, water and the air. Consumers need a viable alternative to tossing their gadgets in the regular trash. If manufacturers understand — upfront — that they would have to safely recycle their products, they would have a clear incentive to minimize or eliminate the use of toxic substances.

Washington has ignored the e-waste problem. So we were especially cheered last month when the New York City Council passed legislation requiring manufacturers to come up with a plan to allow purchasers to return products for recycling and mandated the amount of goods companies must recycle over the next decade.

And we were very disappointed that Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to veto the bill because of those mandates. His opposition was so fierce that he threatened not to enforce the law if his veto were overridden.

The Council has now offered to split the bill into two. It is not the best approach, but it would at least get the ball rolling.

The main legislation would require manufacturers to take back equipment from consumers and come up with plans to make that disposal convenient. The companies are asked to recycle as much as possible, but no amount is specified. The second bill would impose mandates on manufacturers along with penalties for those that fail to comply.

Mr. Bloomberg endorses electronics recycling in principle, and he is expected to sign the first bill. The Council would likely override his veto of the second. Since the mandates would not kick in until 2012 — two years after Mr. Bloomberg leaves office — the matter would be settled by the next mayor or the courts.

Most makers of electronic gear clearly need to be pressured into doing the right thing. Some companies, including Apple, Dell, Sony and Hewlett-Packard, accept mailed-in equipment or offer collection days. But their efforts need to be broader and better organized to be really effective.

In 2005, consumers threw out as much as 2.2 million tons of electronics, 25,000 tons from New York alone. The problem will get much bigger as a February 2009 deadline nears for switching to high-definition, digital television and people rush to ditch their analog gear. A measure that gets electronics makers working on plans to collect their old products is a start. But only that.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company