In a previous post, concerning a hard drive full of confidential material that some PBS researchers had bought in a market in Ghana, I touched on the issue of hi-tech rubbish disposal. Some of it is shipped to other countries (as was the errant disk drive), where less-stringent environmental rules make disposal cheaper, sometimes at the expense of local people’s health. But some of it ends up, with ordinary household trash, in landfills, where its content of heavy metals and other toxins can leach into the ground water.
Yesterday’s New York Times has an article describing some recent attempts, by state and local governments, to address this problem:
Since 2004, 18 states and New York City have approved laws that make manufacturers responsible for recycling electronics, and similar statutes were introduced in 13 other states this year. The laws are intended to prevent a torrent of toxic and outdated electronic equipment — television sets, computers, monitors, printers, fax machines — from ending up in landfills where they can leach chemicals into groundwater and potentially pose a danger to public health.
The size of the potential problem is staggering; according to the article, the EPA estimates that there are more than 99 million old TV sets mouldering away in cupboards and basements in the US.
Many of the programs involve the establishment of drop-off sites, where consumers can bring their old tech-junk to be recycled. It appears that these are generally well received; in fact, some of the sites are nearly overwhelmed by the volume of material, especially in their early days of operation:
“We were getting 18 semi loads a day when the program first started,” said Craig Lorch, owner of Total Reclaim, a warehouse on the south edge of Seattle that is among the collection points.
Maine has been running a program since 2004, and is currently collecting about four pounds of E-trash per capita each year. This program has some capacity for financing part of its cost, since many electronic devices contain precious metals (e.g., gold, silver, platinum) that can be easily re-sold, and some parts that can be refurbished and reused.
Some of the manufacturers are complaining about the cost of the program, nevertheless:
Manufacturers say a reasonable rate for collection and processing of waste is 25 to 30 cents a pound. Still it is more than they say they can recoup from reselling the metals they harvest, particularly for televisions.
This really is, to a considerable extent, beside the point. Before the advent of regulations making the manufacturers responsible for recycling the equipment, they, and consumers, were in effect receiving a hidden subsidy from everyone else. The disposal costs of the toxic waste were borne by everyone, not by the people that make and use the equipment. (As I’ve discussed before, these economic externalities are common when pollution of various kinds is at issue.) Absent the regulation, the direct cost to the manufacturer of reducing the waste disposal problem significantly exceeded the direct benefit. The goal of regulation should be to re-shape these incentives:
Carole A. Cifrino, the environmental specialist who manages Maine’s e-waste program, said she hoped the strict recycling would eventually prompt manufacturers to rethink their designs.
“Maybe since they have some responsibility for the cleanup,” Ms. Cifrino said, “it will motivate them to think about how you design for the environment and the commodity value at the end of the life.”
Historically, the ability to generate rubbish has basically been free. It is becoming more and more apparent that it has a real cost, and it’s important that the cost be borne by those who can do something about the underlying problem.