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Council’s green grab provokes pushback from appliance industry

Lawsuit challenges mandate for manufacturers to clean up ozone-depleting gas from junked refrigerators and air conditioners

A new city law forces the manufacturers of refrigerators and air conditioners to take responsibility for the disposal of the environmentally harmful gases that keep the appliances cold – and the trade association for companies like Whirlpool and Friedrich is suing to block the measure.

The city Department of Sanitation already removes the chlorofluorocarbon cooling compounds before sending old appliances to landfills, in compliance with federal law. When released into the atmosphere, chlorofluorocarbons contribute to the destruction of the ozone layer.

Photo: Luke Redmond/Flickr

Photo: Luke Redmond/Flickr

Under a 2013 law primarily sponsored by then–City Council member (and now congressional candidate) Domenic Recchia, the manufacturers must set up their own chlorofluorocarbon-recapture programs or pay a fee on each discarded item.

The law is scheduled to go into effect July 1. The Department of Sanitation is currently reviewing rules for a program, which set the charge to manufacturers at $20 per appliance.

In a lawsuit filed in late 2013 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, a national trade group, alleges the city is unconstitutionally imposing requirements on companies that they cannot fulfill. 

In a court filing, the manufacturers’ association calls the city law “a discriminatory, protectionist measure” designed solely to get the companies to help pay for Sanitation’s refrigerant-removal program, which costs an estimated $1.8 million a year.

“This regulation has zero impact on curbside recycling or on the environment,” said Kevin Messner, vice president of state government affairs at the association. Messner asserts that although Sanitation has informed manufacturers they are welcome to set up their own programs, the new law makes it nearly impossible for them to do so.

“They have prohibited the manufacturer from even picking up an appliance at the curb,” said Messner. “We don’t believe they’re really expecting the manufacturers to set up their own programs.”

The city Law Department has denied the allegations in court. In a statement, a Department of Sanitation spokesperson, Belinda Mager, vigorously defended the law.

“Manufacturers reap huge profits from City markets, and should, as a cost of doing business, manage harmful materials used in their products,” said Mager via email. “Extended Producer Responsibility laws such as this one are used across the country to shift costs from overburdened sanitation departments and incentivize the use of environmentally friendly materials.”

Sanitation’s plan emerged from a package of laws seeking to stop scavengers from stealing appliances and other recyclables valued for their scrap metal before the Department of Sanitation can pick them up.

Trashed refrigerators and air conditioners are being stolen from the sidewalks in great numbers, and when unauthorized recyclers dismantle them there’s a high chance that the gases won’t be properly disposed of.

One factor driving the thefts — not addressed by the City Council’s legislative package — is New York City’s elaborate curbside cleanup system, under which one team heads out and removes the gases right there on the sidewalk, tags a fridge as serviced, and then leaves it there for a recycling truck to pick up later, leaving ample time for scrap metal thieves to strike. In many cities, refrigerators go straight to a central location for cleanup.

“DSNY’s current refrigerant recovery program is tailored to the unique challenges of collecting waste in the largest and most dense city in the country,” said Mager.

Recchia’s campaign office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Sanitation will hold a public hearing on the matter on March 27 at 2:00 p.m., in the 3rd floor hearing room at 125 Worth Street.

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