E-Waste Debate

Posted November 21st, 2013 by Nanette Heffernan. Comment (0).

EwasteWith the holiday season upon us, and noting electronics are at the top of many people’s list, I find this to be a timely discussion.

Debate Question
Should manufactures and retailers be required to take back all of the electronic items they sell when people are done with them?

What’s E-Waste?
E-waste is a term used to describe the category of electronic products that are near the end of their useful life to the owner. This refers to any item that “has a brain” (a.k.a a central processing unit or CPU) such as a computer, TV, VCR, stereo, printer, copier, cell phone, MP3 player, video game, and so on. E-waste is the fastest growing segment of the garbage stream today and when these items are thrown away they require special handling due to the toxic substances they contain: lead, cadmium, mercury, or fire retardants. Americans currently toss nearly 3 million tons of electronic waste a year and that number is expected to increase due to the demand for faster, smaller, better electronics. To make matters more complicated, researchers estimate that nearly 75 percent of old electronics are still in storage (garages, closets, etc.) because people don’t know how to deal with them.

To be clear, e-waste is different than electrical waste. Appliances, such as toasters and refrigerators, are not considered e-waste because they do not have a CPU. In general, electric waste is less of a concern than e-waste because people don’t usually covet the latest electronic technology and therefore tend to hold onto their electronic items as long a possible. Have you ever heard of someone say they can’t wait to get the new ToastMax II Toaster that will be available this summer because they heard it toasts bread 3 seconds faster than their current model? It’s not the toasters that are creating problem, but rather the growing mountains of e-waste around the globe that are stirring up quite an argument worldwide.

Pro Product Stewardship Laws Argument Summary
Every year 300 million computers and 1 billion cell phones are produced, most of which become obsolete or unwanted within 2-3 years of purchase. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans alone throw away nearly 3 million tons of e-waste a year (130,000 pieces a day) and that number is expected to grow at an annual rate of 9% indefinitely in order to satiate our desire for cheaper, faster, smaller electronics. For years Americans sent these items to landfills where they seep toxins into the environment. Fortunately, citizens and governments woke up to this crisis and subsequently banned the disposal of electronic waste in landfills. Unfortunately, though, they did not put systems in place to deal with where it would all go after that. As a result, the United States and other wealthy countries, began shipping their e-waste to third world countries where environmental laws were not as strict. It is in these far away lands where very poor people, including children, dismantle hazardous electronic materials, salvage anything of value, and usually burn what’s left releasing tons of toxic chemicals into the environment. Various cancers, myriad other terminal illnesses, and birth defects are rampant in these areas.

The good news is the U.S., and many other countries, have begun to ban the export of e-waste to third world countries, but now what? In most communities across America it is up to local governments to absorb the cost of cleaning up e-waste, imposing expenses at a time when most local governments are just trying to keep police on the street and teachers in the classroom. But a select few states, such as Maine, have passed Manufacture Take Back Laws or Product Stewardship Laws, forcing the companies who make the products, to pay to have them properly recycled when we are done with them. Manufacturers are either encouraged or required to collect the recycling fees at the time of purchase from the consumer to avoid unwanted “dumping” when a product has reached the end of its useful life.

Supporters of Product Stewardship Laws contend that forcing manufacturers to manage their products from cradle-to-cradle is the only fair way to deal with e-waste. Shipping our garbage off to other countries that are ill equipped to deal with it is not the ethical thing to do. Pushing the problem off on local governments is not the answer either since it is unrealistic to expect governments to come up with safe and efficient electronic waste recycling policies due to the massive volume involved, fast rate of change, and extreme variability within the category.

Product Stewardship Laws are a win, win, win proposal; a win for communities, a win for the environment, and a win for manufacturers as they strive to make “greener” products in order to reduce recycling costs and comply with new standards.

Anti Product Stewardship Laws Argument Summary
Many electronics manufacturers and their retail partners are against Product Stewardship Laws. While they agree that having e-waste properly recycled is important, they feel that dumping the entire problem in their lap is not the way to handle it. Manufacturers and retailers operate everyday on the simple supply and demand principle. It’s their business to figure out what people and businesses want to buy and then to supply it, all while returning a profit to their shareholders. Furthermore, they must do so while operating under the constrains of hundreds of existing laws designed to protect their customers, employees, community, shareholders, and the environment. Imposing even more requirements simply makes it more difficult for businesses to compete. Companies will be forced to pass these costs onto customers resulting in higher retailer prices. Smaller manufacturers may not be able to afford the investment costs to “green” their products and be forced to shut down. And when business fold people lose their jobs, which is the last thing the U.S. economy needs today.

In addition, Product Stewardship Laws are a slippery slope. One could argue that millions of products are toxic in some way. Forcing electronic manufacturers and retailers to recycle e-waste is a Trojan Horse. If we aren’t careful manufacturers from all industries and their retail partners will be forced to take back millions of products on the grounds that they are toxic. What about furniture laced with fire retardants? Where do we draw the line? Product Stewardship Laws are a lose, lose, lose proposal; a lose for consumers, a lose for workers, and a lose for the business community.


“China: The Electronic Waste Basket of The World,” CNN, May 31, 2013

“Conserving Resources, Preventing Waste” Environmental Protection Agency

Melinda Burns, The Smoldering Trash Revolt”, Product Policy Institute, January 21, 2010

Nanette Heffernan, E-Waste – Part I”, Crunchy Wisdom, January 3, 2011

Nanette Heffernan, E-Waste – Part II – Fish For Dinner”, Crunchy Wisdom, January 15, 2011

Jackie Bennion, Where the Law Stands on E-Waste”, PBS

Worldwide Map of Where Your E-Waste Goes”, PBS


The Wasteland, by 60 minutes

Ghana – Digital Dumping Ground, by PBS


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