Hard wired to waste
When asked about my job a few years ago, I would say, “I’m in the garbage industry,” which was true on two counts: I was a journalist, and my beat was solid waste. Spotting the trends in that business wasn’t always easy, but the day I stood in our company’s storage room overlooking a sea of old computers, I knew the country had a date with an electronic waste problem.
Discarded gadgets, like all refuse, are the natural consequence of consumerism. But, just as adolescents were infatuated with Pong and Mario, it was clear to me on that day that businesses were mega smitten with megabytes, and the world was never going to be the same. Meanwhile, back at the dump, no one was quite sure what to do about the sheer volume of computer waste that was showing up.
Now, 20 years later, New York City is ready to take a new tact in the electronics waste wars: holding the manufacturers responsible, as well as those who buy their products. Last month, the city council passed a bill that would fine its residents $100 for throwing electronic products into the trash and also placed an onus on manufacturers in two ways. First, companies, like Sony, would have to create electronic waste collection programs, and second, they would have to collect a mandatory amount of e-waste.
Despite favoring e-waste recycling, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg disagrees that manufacturers should have to collect a specific amount of waste, saying that the bill “has untested and arbitrary industry performance standards,” according to a New York Times article. Although the mayor says he will veto the measure, the council could override it based on a 47 to 3 vote to pass the bill.
Make no mistake that electronic products contain hazardous materials, such as lead and mercury. Unfortunately, making the producer “responsible” is deceptive because the costs for increased environmental standards and the fees assessed by cities will be passed to the consumer.
Worse, producer responsibility will not lower the volumes of e-waste disposed. With few exceptions, consumer electronics are so inexpensive that it is cheaper to buy a new, most likely technologically superior product than to fix a broken one. Business electronics, such as computers and printers, may be worth repairing, but they, too, have a life cycle and are destined for disposal. An additional problem — and a dirty secret for years — is that some countries’ low environmental standards and cheap labor have combined to produce less-expensive locations for e-waste disposal.
The technology that has brought so many impressive advancements to government, businesses and our homes has a dark side. And, if nothing else, it serves to remind us that we are all involved in the garbage business, whether we admit it or not.