Industry Should Pay for eWaste

Rural communities often pay exorbitant fees for disposing of solid waste, especially when it comes to e-waste. The following article was written after I had to pay to stand in line to dispose of my own e-waste on a special collections day in Eureka, California. It was published in the 6/28/05 edition of the Eureka Times Standard Newspaper.

Industry Should Pay for eWaste

A few sunny Sundays ago I spent over an hour idling in my vehicle, waiting in line with at least 100 other people who wanted to do the right thing by recycling their outdated electronic goods at the Free e-Waste Recycling event, sponsored by Eureka Community Recycling Center and the Humboldt Waste Management Authority, and promoted by our own Congressman Mike Thompson.

It was encouraging to see how many of my neighbors wanted to do the right thing and properly dispose of their e-waste. Of course, one had to admit, that the main reason for the huge line wasn’t only because it was a nice thing to do, but because the disposal fee of $10 per item was being waived for one day.

TV after TV and monitor after monitor were tossed. The pile kept growing, and that was just in Eureka.

Every day around the U.S., approximately 3,000 tons of electronics make it into the waste stream, with much ending up in landfills where high levels of lead, mercury and other heavy metals can leach into the ground and create serious environmental hazards.

A typical CRT monitor contains three to nine pounds of lead, recyclers say. And printed circuit boards contain beryllium, cadmium, flame retardants and other compounds that can contaminate the air and groundwater and expose humans to carcinogens and other toxins when equipment is shredded, burned or sent to a landfill.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says e-waste is now the fastest-growing waste stream in the U.S.

While much of the problem can be blamed on the consumer habits of Americans, most of it can be attributed to electronics manufacturers, who have a simple strategy to stay ahead of their competition, by quickly pushing their products into obsolescence to get The Next Big Thing on shelves and reap more profits. Their product’s life expectancies are getting shorter, and the waste problem is out of control.

I love technology and all that it offers, and I’m constantly blown away by how quickly it changes and improves. But if the government allows manufacturers to develop their technologies at such an astonishing rate without requiring them to come up with a way to properly dispose of their outdated products, then why are we consumers just rolling over and allowing our government officials to place the burden on us, instead of the producers, by imposing token $10 e-waste disposal fees when we go the dump?

Of course, it’s just so un-American and anti-business to even suggest that corporations be held responsible for the toxins they bring to the marketplace. But it’s true, and elsewhere in the world, people understand that.

All we have to do is look overseas to the European Union’s 2001 directive for a system of “Extended Producer Responsibility,” which has the courage to do just that. The EU holds electronics producers responsible for the recovery and recycling of their waste. It is a model that must be followed in the US. We shouldn’t be the ones to pay with our pocketbooks and our health.

Back at ground zero in San Jose, a report by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) states that “Manufacturers should be responsible for meeting specified recovery and recycling goals for electronic devices in the US. Such goals will provide manufacturers with an incentive to help finance the development of a convenient and effective collection infrastructure.”

The report went on to say that by placing the financial burden on the producers, they will have an incentive to design products that are easily and cheaply recyclable.

Until there is a manageable system of electronic product recycling, the SVTC proposes that local solid waste programs should be authorized to charge-back manufacturers for the costs of managing their electronic devices. In addition manufacturers should take responsibility for educating consumers about the threat to public health posed by the improper disposal of electronics. Devices need to be labeled with information identifying environmental hazards and proper methods of managing the hazardous materials that they contain.

While we North Coast residents can applaud Congressman Mike Thompson for his participation in our local e-waste recycling day and also for his formation of the Congressional E-Waste Working Group, it’s not good enough. All of us must find the courage to stand up and hold the e-waste producers responsible for this madness, instead of burdening consumers.

Join up with others who share concerns about e-waste and look for solutions together, by coming to a Redwood Technology Consortium meeting held the first Thursday of each month.

Rene Agredano is co-owner of Agreda Communications and founder of MarcomAndPOP.com, a worldwide provider of total graphic solutions. She is also a member of the Redwood Technology Consortium.

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