Keep Government's Nose Out of the E-Garbage

This article is based on the report, Mandating Recycling of Electronics: A Lose-Lose-Lose Proposition, published by CEI, February 2005.

Haste maketh waste and in the fast-pace world of technology, there’s a lot of it. Americans trash 2 million tons of old computers and other forms of electronic waste annually. While that’s still a tiny fraction of the nation’s total waste stream, the issue is creating heaps of hype and hysteria about what to do with the “e-waste.”

This year, California became the first state to hold consumers responsible for their e-mess. Starting January 1, if you buy a TV or home computer from a manufacturer in California, you will pay $6 to $10 to finance a costly, statewide program to collect and recycle all used monitors. Moreover, manufacturers are required to rethink the way they build computers. By 2007, they must phase out lead–currently used in computers to protect users from the tube’s x-rays–mercury, cadmium, and other substances crucial to the operation of PCs.

Maine’s new law enacted last spring is even more draconian, requiring manufacturers to arrange and pay to have their used computers and TVs collected and recycled. Many other states are considering similar legislation.

Meanwhile, Congress is weighing in to provide a national “solution” and prevent a hodge-podge of 50 different state laws. Last month, Reps. Mike Thompson (D.-Calif.) and Louise Slaughter (D.-N.Y.) introduced legislation to require consumers to pay a $10 fee on purchases of new computers to fund a nationwide e-waste recycling program. While the fee may seem insignificant, there is little reason to believe it would remain low for long; the cost to recycle a single computer is three times that amount.

Widespread panic among lawmakers is based on misinformation spread largely by powerful eco-activist groups who believe the growing amount of electronic waste reflects the ills of a “throw-away” society and that recycling e-waste is our moral obligation to achieve “zero waste tolerance.” Among the myths bandied about are that e-waste is growing at an uncontrollable, “exponential” rate; and that heavy metals contained in computers are leaking out of the landfills, poisoning our ground soil.

In reality, e-waste has remained at only one percent of the total municipal waste stream since EPA began calculating electronics discards in 1999. Furthermore, the annual number of obsolete home computers is expected to level off at 63 million this year. While that may sound like a lot of computers, it’s not an unmanageable amount. Our landfills are fully equipped to handle our nation’s waste–and e-waste.

Nor is there any scientific evidence that e-waste in landfills presents health risks. Landfills are built today with thick, puncture-resistant liners that keep waste from coming into contact with soil and groundwater. A year-long, peer-reviewed study released last March by the Solid Waste Association of North America concluded, “extensive data??¢â???¬ ¦show that heavy metal concentrations in leachate and landfill gas are generally far below the limits??¢â???¬ ¦established to protect human health and the environment.”

The real problem is for lawmakers who, based on misplaced fears, have banned TVs and PCs from municipal landfills and now don’t know where to put them. Mandated recycling is not the answer. The costs, ultimately passed on to consumers, are staggering–$500/ton of e-waste to recycle versus $40/ton to landfill. “Eco-design” requirements will cripple technological innovation, and substance bans will unleash a host of unintended health and environmental risks.

There is good news. Manufacturers are moving on their own to recycle their products, and they’re doing it better and cheaper than government. Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Gateway, and IBM are just a few of the many manufacturers operating their own recovery programs, recycling over 160 million pounds of e-waste a year.

How to make it even more successful? Keep government’s nose out of the e-garbage.