It's the Environment, Stupid.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Industry vs. legislation

Washington State is toying with the idea of shifting some of the burden of recycling electronic waste onto the manufacturer. The proposed legislation would require manufacturers and retailers to make it easier for you and me to avoid letting our unwanted electronics end up in landfills.

The idea behind shifting the burden of waste from the consumer to the manufacturers is that the manufacturer of the good has to figure out what to do with it after you don’t want or need it anymore.

As it stands now the consumer is stuck with the burden. In NY for example, people just put stuff they don’t want on the street. If it’s not picked up by someone who walks by and happens to have a use for, say, a broken monitor, the garbage truck will pick it up in a few days. Others who want to be more “responsible” about tossing out their old tv or computer could take it to a collection facility. But that requires cash, because it’ll cost you $5 to $10 once you actually lug your stuff all the way to the collection site. Then there are others that think they’re doing the right thing by “donating” their e-waste to charities like the Salvation Army and Goodwill, but by doing that they’re merely shifting the consumer responsibility onto the charity organization. So, right now it’s really a no-win situation for the consumer.

However, if computer manufacturers had to figure out what to do with that monitor once you didn’t need it any more, a lot less computers might end up in landfills - or in China. (The U.S. generates most of the world's e-waste, and we send about half of it to China because we don't want it in our backyard. This link has some photos and info about that.)

Personally, I don’t think the WA legislation goes far enough. We need to shift the burden entirely on the manufacturer. Maybe if the manufacturer had all this e-waste piling up that they didn’t know what to do with but had to deal with, they’d be forced to design a product that didn’t need to be thrown away but could be disassembled and its parts reused. Or it could be designed to be thrown away because maybe the materials would be biodegradable. (This plan is laid out by William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s in the book Cradle to Cradle.)

But guess what, the industry doesn’t like legislation – at all – no matter how lenient it is. Big surprise.

Here’s the reported industry response from the Seattle P-I article: “They say the new rule would unfairly burden their industry, potentially forcing price increases on their products or the export of jobs overseas.” Does this sound familiar? They must have copied and pasted it from an emergency kit that comes standard with every industry business license entitled “What To Do If Pesky Legislation Tries To Regulate Your Industry.” Although I haven’t actually obtained a copy of it, it probably reads a little like this:
1) Be outraged. There is absolutely nothing wrong with your current business practices.
2) Immediately call everyone else in your industry and send out a joint press release with this line, “the new rule will unfairly burden our industry, potentially forcing price increases on our products or the export of jobs overseas.” (Note: if all of your jobs are already overseas ie. outside of America, just leave the overseas part in for dramatic effect.)
3) Lobby against legislation. This could include, but is not limited to large contributions to politicians.
4) If things get out of hand and the public should happen to support said legislation, hire a PR company to run advertisements to make the public feel sorry for your industry and make them hate whoever it is that proposed this damn legislation in the first place. That sorry bastard will regret the day they introduced it.

What if instead of spending millions of dollars lobbying against proposed legislation to regulate industry, companies spent those millions of dollars to change their ways? Heck, why even wait for legislation at all? What if industry initiated change? Then there would be no need for the emergency kit. There would be no bickering or lobbying over big business and our politicians could get on to other items on the agenda. That wouldn't be such a bad thing.


  • Hi, just found your blog via bloghub and very glad too see another blogger writing about these issues. I particularly enjoyed this post.

    Green groups in Australia have been pushing for this sort of 'extended producer responsbility' legislation for years (it's widespread in Europe) and the response from indsutry is always exactly as you've described.

    Essentially not having this legislation just means that the community is subsidising manufacturers when their products end up in landfill.

    Voluntary schemes do very little, although in Oz there are a couple of good voluntary indsutry schemes (introduced with a lot of prodding from government and others), notably mobile phone battery recycling. Most consumer goods still just end up in landfill though - and some of them (eg, batteries) are toxic.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 20:18  

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