Waste Bytes. Can We Compute A Solution?

By Nelson Harvey

What if I offered you a free airplane flight with the purchase of a wireless calling plan? That’s precisely what the phone company T-Mobile did over Thanksgiving weekend this year, and it’s just one of the flood of deals that companies are offering this holiday in an attempt to move phones, computers, DVD players, and a host of other electronic devices off the shelves.

Absent from this ad blitz is any discussion of what happens to our increasingly ephemeral electronics when we throw them away, and that’s why it’s encouraging that the New York City Council is considering a new law that would require electronics manufacturers to take back their products for recycling within NYC.

The New York Department of Sanitation picks up 21,840 pounds of electronic waste per year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and less than 10 percent of it is currently being recycled. Many electronic devices contain harmful toxins like lead and cadmium, which enter the air and water when the devices are incinerated or landfilled. According to the EPA, some 70 percent of the toxics present in landfills are the result of electronic waste.

The New York law, titled Intro 104, would cover TVs, DVD players, and portable digital music players. It embraces the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility, requiring all manufacturers who sell such devices within New York City to submit e-waste management plans to city government by July 1st, 2008.

A Chinese worker takes apart computers with little more than gloves as protection from their toxic contents.

Seven U.S. states have similar laws, and countries like Japan and the European Union have required companies to take back their waste for years now. The hope behind such programs is that once manufacturers are burdened with the toxic consequences of their own design choices, they will begin to phase toxic ingredients out of their products.

Precise regulatory approaches differ between the bills, but one of the more watched U.S. efforts is California’s 2003 e-waste law, which requires retailers to collect a fee from consumers on covered electronic devices in order to pay for government-sanctioned recycling programs. This effort has grown rapidly since its implementation, raising more than enough money through such fees to cover recycling costs.

The New York law doesn’t require retailers to collect a fee, but relies on companies alone to finance the cost of their recycling programs. This concerns me for a couple of reasons. First, it’s clear that manufacturers will find a way to pass recycling costs on to the consumer through higher prices anyway. Second, allowing each company to establish their own program could undermine the economies of scale inherent in government recycling efforts, which leads to a lower cost per ton recycled.

Margaret Walls, an economist with the group Resources For the Future who has done several economic analyses of Extended Producer Responsibility laws, told me via email that such laws have generally not been shown to spur companies to reduce the toxic content of their products. At a minimum, though, they do require takeback, keeping some goods out of the landfill. In Walls’ view, the most promising approach is a combined tax/subsidy law, like the one in place in California.

Even if the New York plan isn’t ideal from a regulatory perspective, at least its a start. If city government wants to keep pace with ad campaigns like that of T Mobile, they’ll certainly have their work cut out for them.

Photo Credit: Alistair Ruff

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