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DiNapoli: Use of rechargeable batteries is increasing dramatically, but state fails to enforce recycling law requirements

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According to an audit released today by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is not doing enough to ensure that rechargeable batteries are recycled as required by law to protect the environment and public safety.

“We use devices with rechargeable batteries every day, but they pose serious environmental risks if not properly recycled,” DiNapoli said. “Unfortunately, the agency responsible for ensuring they are recycled does not know if this is actually happening or if they go out in the trash where they endanger the environment, public health and safety of New York City. DEC needs to start monitoring and enforcing the law or this danger will only get worse as the use of rechargeable batteries increases.

Rechargeable batteries can contain toxic metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, nickel and silver, and lithium-ion, all of which can pose a threat to the environment and human health and safety. they are not properly recycled. If they are simply thrown in the trash and enter the waste stream, they can end up in landfills and their chemicals can seep into public water systems, lakes and streams. Lithium-ion batteries can ignite or explode if damaged in the waste stream and were the cause of a six-alarm fire on a garbage barge in December 2021.

The DEC is responsible for enforcing the New York State Rechargeable Battery Act of 2010 which requires manufacturers and retailers to recycle rechargeable batteries, with some exceptions, such as large batteries weighing more than 25 pounds and rechargeable batteries for vehicles. Recycling in New York is managed by Call2Recycle (C2R), a nonprofit program funded by the rechargeable battery and portable electronics industry, under a plan approved by the DEC in 2013.

C2R provides collection bins, covers shipping and sorting costs and selects recycling channels, so there are no public costs or public collection sites. C2R also creates and submits to DEC an annual report on recycling efforts that battery manufacturers are required to provide by law. Between 2017 and 2020, C2R said it collected 996,149 pounds of rechargeable batteries – mostly nickel-cadmium, followed by sealed lead, lithium-ion and nickel metal hydride.

DiNapoli’s audit found that outside of C2R’s efforts, the DEC has no independent knowledge of whether rechargeable batteries are recycled in New York City as required by law or how much is recycled. The agency also pays little heed to the annual reports that C2R submits on behalf of manufacturers.

C2R’s 2020 report lists 189 manufacturers in its recycling program that sell rechargeable batteries in the state. In 2014, he gave DEC a list of 75 manufacturers who weren’t in the program and who might not have complied with the law. DEC sent letters that resulted in 25 joining the program, but has taken no action since then to verify the remaining 50 manufacturers.

In 2021, C2R sent DEC a list of the top 10 manufacturers not in its recycling program, but the agency took no action on it. Auditors were able to reach seven of the manufacturers who each said they did not have a recycling program. Two of them are large companies with over 14,000 employees and $5 billion in revenue.

In September 2021, there were 911 outlets in the C2R program. Auditors checked 30 of them and found that five did not know they were registered with the rechargeable battery collection and recycling program and three did not have a collection bin. There are at least 1,248 additional retailers who may be subject to the law but are either not in the program or have not implemented an alternative means of battery collection and recycling. Auditors checked with 72 of them and found that a large majority (69%) had no collection bins for consumers.

Because it does not verify whether manufacturers and retailers are following the law, DEC has not issued a single fine or penalty since the law was passed. Violators of the law can face fines of $50 to $200 for consumers, $200 to $500 for retailers, and $2,000 to $5,000 for manufacturers.

The DEC is required by law to analyze the information it obtains from C2R and its own monitoring efforts, and report every two years to the Legislative Assembly and the Executive Branch. He never submitted a report.

The use of rechargeable batteries will continue to grow, including those powering electric vehicles, not covered by the law. A law passed in September 2021 requires that by 2035, all new cars and trucks sold in New York will be zero emissions. Rechargeable vehicle batteries pose the same threats to the environment and human health as batteries that must be recycled by law. The growing use of batteries increases the urgency for DEC to meet its responsibilities under the law and demonstrate strict recycling oversight.

DiNapoli’s audit recommended that the DEC monitor, enforce and promote the recycling law and submit the biennial reports required by law.

In its response, the agency cited lack of resources for its inability to monitor or enforce the law. In 2018, it reported that seven employees spent 7% of their time overseeing the recycling of rechargeable batteries, rising to five employees spending 2% of their time in August 2021. Employees are also responsible for overseeing the proper disposal of electronic waste, mercury-based products and toxins in packaging. The agency’s full answer is in the audit.

Report
Department of Environmental Conservation, Monitoring and Rechargeable Battery Enforcement


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