Thought the 8-track Would Never Make a Comeback? E-Waste: How Markets Are Solving Environmental Challenges

Posted on 12. Apr, 2011 by in Business & Policy


You probably thought the Walkman, fan-like floppy disks, and VCRs were gone for good, but they’re coming back—as pollutants. Electronic devices contain harmful toxins such as mercury, cadmium, and lead that can leach into soil, enter groundwater systems, and endanger local communities. Long after the last spin of a cassette tape or the last call-received from a Zack Morris cellular phone, electronic devices can cause long-term risks to human health and the environment.

Electronic waste (“e-waste”) recycling has been gaining steam throughout the past decade. Unfortunately, e-waste recycling without a government created market is unprofitable in the United States. Further, many “recyclers” simply send electronics to be disassembled in developing countries, usually by children with little protection or training. E-waste is a global environmental, health and social justice issue that’s finally receiving meaningful attention in the United States, the world’s leader in e-waste.

 Since 2003, 24 states have enacted some form of e-waste statute to regulate the disposal and recycling of electronic waste and reduce its export oversees. These statutes have significantly reduced the amount of e-waste entering landfills and exiting through ports (though more needs to be done). What’s most remarkable is how states are solving the challenge of e-waste by tapping into the power of the private market.

Two very different approaches are being used to reign in e-waste pollution. California imposes a tax on consumer purchases of electronics. Retailers collect a fee at the register and the State uses this money to reimburse recyclers for collection and processing. California has witnessed the emergence of a robust, innovative e-waste recycling industry. With millions of dollars collected from electronics sales yearly, there’s a race for e-waste in California. Private businesses are innovating new ways to collect old electronics, including door-to-door pickup and weekend collection drives. The aim is to make e-waste recycling easier and more convenient for consumers. However, California has unintentionally created a recycling industry dependent on wasteful, toxic electronics, with no regulatory mechanism to reduce the amount of e-waste entering the waste stream.

Washington State is looking to reduce the amount of e-waste that enters the market by requiring manufacturers to bear the entire costs of e-waste recycling. Forcing manufacturers to internalize waste disposal costs puts market efficiency, innovation, and competition to work creating more sustainable, environmentally safe consumer electronics. Manufacturers now have an incentive to make less wasteful products to lower their disposal costs. Rather than simply becoming efficient e-waste collectors, Washington is poised to turn private industry into efficient e-waste eliminators. After five years on the books, it remains to be seen whether Washington’s statute will lead to long-term, systemic changes to manufacturing. So far the program has been extremely effective at reducing the amount of e-waste entering landfills or being shipped oversees.

e-waste recycling E-waste statutes are an example of how market principles are being used to solve our environmental challenges. How a state imposes environmental costs dictates how the market will emerge to solve the problem. California treats e-waste as a consumer problem and imposes a tax on electronics. The result has been the emergence of an efficient e-waste harvesting culture that competes for State funds. Washington State, on the other hand, treats e-waste as a manufacturing and design problem, imposing e-waste costs directly on manufacturers.

The hope is that manufacturers will create more competitive electronics by reducing waste and toxicity. Both California and Washington are using the power of the market to reduce the environmental impacts of e-waste. E-waste statutes throughout the country are leading to greater e-waste recycling every year, demonstrating that environmental protection is compatible with business objectives. The secret is orienting the market to solve our environmental problems, not create them.

Article by Opportunity Green Insights contributor, Patrick Haase.


Tags: , , ,

One Response to “Thought the 8-track Would Never Make a Comeback? E-Waste: How Markets Are Solving Environmental Challenges”

Leave a Reply