Mandated Recycling of Electronics: A Lose-Lose-Lose Proposition

Issue Analysis 2005 No. 2

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The widespread use of computers in the home and the rapid technological advancements that enable new, better, and more powerful models to roll out each year have created an enormous number of obsolete machines. The annual number of used, outdated personal computers increased from 18 million in 1997 to an estimated 61 million in 2004. Experts predict that from 2004 to the end of 2007, there will be a total 246 million home computers no longer in use. 

To date, most used computers have not yet entered the waste stream. An estimated 75 percent are likely stored in people’s homes in attics, garages, and basements. Fourteen percent are believed to be recycled or reused, and an even smaller amount—11 percent—is landfilled. The issue of what to do with the increasing amount of electronic waste (e-waste) is a growing concern, particularly as consumers start disposing of their machines.

Exacerbating the challenge is the rapid spread of misinformation that is creating an unwarranted near-panic among policy makers who fear there is no adequate policy in place for handling the growing amount of waste. Most of these fears are based on the following false claims:  

  • Toxics contained in computers and other electronics are leaking out of the landfills and poisoning our ground soil and groundwater.
  • E-waste is growing faster than the municipal waste stream, and will overtake the available landfill space.
  • Our goal should be zero-waste to save our natural resources and protect the environment. 

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 in the world of waste management policy, distracting policy makers from identifying the real problem and seeking a proper solution. Worse, misperceptions are generating misguided policies that only intensify the problem. For example, a number of states’ recent rush to ban television sets and computers from municipal landfills is creating an even larger problem in deciding how to handle the growing amount of waste.

State and federal lawmakers, believing that the answer lies in recycling mandates, increasingly are embracing “extended producer responsibility” policies—which require manufacturers and retailers to take back and recycle or refurbish their used equipment— and “advanced recovery fee” approaches—which tax consumers to fund government-run e-waste collection and recycling operations. Some lawmakers are also considering “ecodesign” mandates stipulating what materials manufacturers can and cannot use to ensure easier recyclability.

Mandated recycling and “green design” requirements would be disastrous. The costs are staggering and will ultimately be passed down to consumers. New design and recycling requirements will cripple technological innovation, and widespread recycling and substance bans will unleash a host of unintended environmental and health risks.

The problem of how to handle the nation’s electronic waste stream is a challenge, not a crisis. The growth in the amount of waste is expected to stabilize in just a few years. Most of it can be handled in today’s modern landfills, which are built to contain hazardous as well as non-hazardous waste safely. The remaining amount of e-waste can be managed through the continued recycling—and, more importantly, the reuse and donation—efforts of manufacturers, retailers, recyclers, and nonprofits. But for this to occur more extensively and successfully, government must get out of the way and end its regulatory barriers.