A decade ago, disposable fast-food packaging and diapers dominated the waste-watcher agenda. Now waste watchers are turning their sights on those engines of the dot.com economy, computers, and other electronics products.
Those taking aim at this latest waste-management target are pressing for new policies to promote electronics recycling, pay for electronics waste-handling, and reduce adverse environmental impacts of these Information Age discards. Mandatory product take-back programs, product bans, and recycling requirements all hover on the policy horizon.
But caution is in order. Though mandatory recycling, product take-backs, and bans arise from good intentions, they all risk increasing product and waste-management costs for consumers, limiting innovations, and provoking unintended environmental consequences.
Aboard the take-back bandwagon
Despite these potential pitfalls, recycling managers are increasingly climbing aboard a product take-back bandwagon. In September, Raymond Communications released results of a 42-state survey of state recycling managers. Asked about "extended producer responsibility" (EPR)—the policy jargon for product take-back programs—27 of 29 respondents to a question about EPR supported the idea.
Eight state recycling managers expect state policy initiatives to address electronics products within a few years. And "almost half—16—indicated there should be EPR legislation, advance disposal fees, or some other policy aimed at ensuring manufacturers do their part." The central issue? Money. State recycling managers trying to recycle electronics products face financial challenges—challenges that they believe electronics product manufacturers should help them overcome.
Some states have already launched their first electronics waste-policy salvos. Massachusetts became the first state to ban cathode ray tubes (used in televisions and computer monitors) from landfills. Others—such as Minnesota—are considering a product take-back requirement for electronics products. New Jersey launched a public recycling program for electronics waste in 1996 in Union County. In the mid-1990s, Rhode Island recommended a landfill ban.
But these policy initiatives should be put into some perspective. A European study of electronics waste estimated that they compose a modest 4% of the total municipal waste stream. U.S. levels are likely to be similar. Moreover, white goods (for example, refrigerators or washing machines), brown goods (televisions) and computer and related equipment make up about 70% of the total amount of electronics products in the waste stream (totaling 2.8% or so of the waste stream).
Electronic goods pose special problems
Still, their explosive entry into the marketplace makes computers a high-visibility target of waste managers. By the mid-1990s, approximately 70 million personal computers had found their way into homes and offices in the United States. The Electronic Industries Association estimates that 37% all households and 58% of worker households own at least one computer.
Their rapid obsolescence makes computers especially vulnerable to criticism in that they pose a waste problem of crisis proportions. An estimated 12 million computers end up each year in the waste stream, resulting in as much as 600 million pounds of waste. In 1998 alone, some 20 million personal computers became obsolete. Of these, about 11% were recycled. Perhaps an additional 3% were refurbished, resold, or given to nonprofit organizations.
Computers, along with other electronics products, pose some special waste-handling and recycling challenges. They often contain various heavy metals; they often use many different materials, which makes disassembly before any recycling imperative (and costly). Pilot programs to recycle electronic equipment show costs ranging from $0.19 per pound (in a New Jersey program) to over $0.44 per pound (in a one-day Massachusetts experiment).
Champions of mandatory recycling or product take-back programs note, rightly, that electronics products contain many materials that, if recaptured, have value. Yet some electronics products—for example, a small Walkman—yield little, or no high-value material. And the potential value of materials, once separated, is only part of the equation. The other critical part of the recycling equation is cost. Transport and disassembly costs can be high—as much as $10-$15 just to ship a computer, for example. Yet the residual value of materials in old electronic equipment may be as little as 1 to 5% of the original cost.
None of these factors is an indictment against electronics recycling, per se. There are opportunities to recycle some electronics products. And there are certainly opportunities for manufacturers to reduce the total environmental footprint of their product.
Manufacturers face challenges
But these efforts require flexibility, dynamic innovation, and an ability to tailor decisions regarding product discards to particular circumstances—in recycling, remanufacturing, and reuse decisions, it is nearly always the devilish details that matter. Materials selection, for example, involves a complex set of trade-offs as manufacturers strive to meet multiple performance criteria. Mandates that set recycling rates, ban altogether the disposal of particular products or materials, or require product take-back plans generally override these devilish details. The result may be less value to the consumer, higher waste management costs, and negligible environmental gains.
The noted Greek philosopher Heraclitus once opined that "all is flux; nothing stays still." So it is with the marketplace. Many manufacturers are beginning to address the very waste challenges that state recycling managers are now wringing their hands over.
Through its "designing-for-environment" efforts, Compaq eliminated ozone-depleting substances from its manufacturing processes and minimized waste generation and energy use in manufacturing. It also made its product more energy efficient, resulting in worldwide energy savings as high as $60 million for products sold in 1995 alone.
Hewlett-Packard now refurbishes and resells computers under a full-warranty. Apple Computer works with a third party to refurbish Apple equipment. Digital Equipment Corporation refurbishes and upgrades equipment. Xerox employs a remanufacturing strategy for its copiers—a strategy that has saved the firm almost $200 million in materials and parts costs in less than five years.
Most major electronics and computer manufacturers now have environmental design initiatives. Many computers now can be partially upgraded; some can yet be traded in for newer models. Dell has a pioneering computer leasing and take back program.
Minimization of some regulatory barriers may go further to nurture these design-for-environment initiatives than product take-back or recycling mandates. For example, current hazardous waste regulations can increase costs associated with recycling some materials. The much ballyhooed Basel Convention, which restricts international waste flows, can limit the ability of those engaged in refurbishing and recycling used electronics products from shipping these products across national borders. Superfund liability still deters some firms from sending materials to a facility for recycling, since they can be found liable under Superfund as an "arranger" if that facility later develops clean-up problems. And the Federal Trade Commission considers selling products with reconditioned parts deceptive unless sold with labels indicating their use.
State recycling managers understandably want funds to support their programs. But, like other local services, such program costs are best paid for through user fees—fees paid by the consumers who use products and make personal choices regarding if, when, and how they discard those products.
Lynn Scarlett is president of Reason Foundation.