The June 2006 cover article, “The Cost of E-Waste,” nicely spells out the burden local governments face in addressing the issue of electronic waste. However, in focusing on traditional solid waste management practices, the article misses an important tool available to local and state governments for managing e-waste.
That tool is product stewardship: a management strategy where whoever designs, produces, sells, or uses a product takes responsibility for minimizing its environmental impact throughout all stages of its life cycle. Typically, the greatest responsibility lies with whomever has the most ability to affect the product's lifecycle environmental impact.
When governments began providing solid waste services some 100 years ago, the impetus was protecting public health. The residential waste stream was largely ash, sawdust, and oyster shells. Products—bottles, rags, old shoes—composed only 7.5% of that stream. The remainder at that time—organics, or biowaste—comprised 20% of the waste stream. (Visit www.productpolicy.org/resources.)
By the end of the 20th century, the proportion of manufactured products in the waste stream had grown to 75%. Local rate payers grew accustomed to covering all disposal costs associated with these products'costs. Manufacturers were left in the fortunate position of only having to recoup their costs for production and marketing. From the perspective of a manufacturer's bottom line, disposal costs are an externality that need not be dealt with.
More to the point, public agency responsibility for disposing of household products now extends to a whole range of products—such as electronics that contain toxic materials and require special handling—that pose a real burden on society when disposed. These products are a growing percentage of our garbage.
“The Cost of E-Waste” article does a great job of describing the current situation in which local governments feel the pressure to collect electronics, but see little upside in doing so. No one doubts that local and state governments have an important role to play in managing the electronic waste stream. But the “cost of e-waste” is also about “who pays?”
Recently passed product stewardship laws in the states of Washington and Maine—and the law of the land in Australia, Japan, Europe, and growing parts of Canada—are making manufacturers much more responsible for paying and arranging for the environmentally safe collection, transport, processing, and recycling of e-waste. This provides a free-market incentive for manufacturers to make products that are less toxic, managed more efficiently (read: less expensively), and perhaps even longer-lived.