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Washington, D.C., February 3, 2005—With rapid technological improvements in computers and electronics turning millions of products obsolete each year, state and local governments are vexed over how to dispose of electronic waste, or "e-waste." Last week, Congress weighed in, introducing legislation (H.R. 425) to charge consumers a fee on the purchase of computers and TVs to fund a nationwide recycling program. But a new study by Competitive Enterprise Institute Adjunct Scholar Dana Joel Gattuso finds that the growing quantity of e-waste is not an insurmountable problem and that government recycling mandates are the wrong way to go.
In Mandated Recycling of Computers: A Lose-Lose-Lose Proposition , Gattuso corrects common misconceptions about electronic waste, arguing that e-waste is not "growing out of control" and threatening to fill up the nation’s landfills; and that electronic components are not leaking heavy metals into the ground soil or water table.
"The swirl of hype and misinformation, coming largely from environmental activist organizations with a goal of generating nothing short of ‘zero waste,’ is creating enormous confusion and fear … and distracting policy makers from identifying the real problem and seeking a proper solution," writes Gattuso. "Worse, misperceptions are generating misguided policies that only intensify the problem."
Some states have banned computers from landfills, creating a problem of what to do with the e-waste. But forcing manufacturers to recycle their used products or charging consumers fees to finance government-run programs is not the answer. These top-down policies carry enormous costs, and will cripple technological innovation. Moreover, they stand to unleash a host of unintended health and environmental risks.
The best outcome for consumers and the environment is for government to get out of the recycling business altogether. Despite good intentions, government mandates only create barriers to successful private efforts to recycle and reuse electronics. Much of the waste can safely be landfilled, while the rest can and is being handled by manufacturers, retailers, recyclers, and nonprofits. These efforts will only succeed and grow if government gets out of the way.