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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Taking Responsibility for E-Waste

Chad Raphael

Chinese villagers smashing our computers' lead-laden monitors for $1.50 a day, contaminating the town's drinking water. Their children playing in toxic ash heaps from burned circuit boards. These disturbing images, from a report on trade in electronic waste issued by environmentalists last week, make it more urgent to take action here at home. Five principles should guide our response.

Plug the toilet. The 1989 Basel Convention bans exports of hazardous waste from rich to poor nations. We're the only developed country that hasn't taken responsibility for its own mess by ratifying the treaty. The world's poorest, who have enjoyed the least of the information age's fruits, shouldn't have to swallow the bulk of its waste.

Plugging the toilet spurs government and industry to act. When California banned the cathode ray tubes in TVs and PCs from its landfills, State Senator Byron Sher quickly introduced a bill to charge upfront fees on products that contain the tubes, which will pay for recycling this especially hazardous waste. The Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group offered qualified support for the bill.

Build our recycling base. Our recycling infrastructure is woefully inadequate. We hurled 3.2 million tons of e-waste into our own landfills in 1997, a figure that could quadruple in a few years, says the Environmental Protection Agency.

Until recently, manufacturers and consumers haven't had economic incentives to recycle. That's because the full social and environmental costs of handling old electronics haven't been borne by their makers or reflected in sticker prices. Costs have been shifted to poor countries that get our exports and local taxpayers, who could be responsible for an estimated $1 billion in hazardous waste charges in California alone over the next five years.

Voluntary plans that allow companies to decide whether to reclaim their old stuff won't do the job. IBM, one of the more enlightened manufacturers, will recycle your computer now for $30. But IBM only gets about 200 computers back per month, a miniscule percentage of the millions it sells to Americans annually.

Having all manufacturers offer or support recycling and setting specific goals for how much e-waste to keep out of the landfill are the best options. State Senator Gloria Romero's bill would require both. Universal recycling will also ensure a level playing field for industry so responsible companies don't suffer competitive disadvantages.

Foster Producer Responsibility. Europe will soon require electronics makers to take back their products when consumers are done with them. When companies know their products will return like boomerangs they will want to design components that rely on fewer dangerous materials and are easily disassembled for reuse or recycling. Producers will invest in research and development and marketing towards these socially valuable ends.

Manufacturers can demand that suppliers provide greener hardware and less bloated software that needs less memory and processor power. Best of all, manufacturers could pursue lower-waste business models such as upgrading and refurbishing equipment, or boosting network computing, which puts software and processor power on a central server that can be accessed by older terminals.

Reward the good players. Take-back laws should offer incentives to companies to compete on grounds of environmental quality. Companies that are redesigning their products and building reputable recycling programs should be rewarded. Ideally, disposal fees charged to consumers or manufacturers would be based in part on the amount of toxics and the amount of reusable material in the product.

Make change from the bottom up. Some in industry say wait until a national e-waste dialogue solves the problem. But national talks have gone slowly, and local taxpayers and Asian villagers can't wait. It's up to the states to build momentum for federal action. California is known for technological innovation and environmental leadership. Let's innovate together.

This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercsury News on March 8, 2002.

Chad Raphael is an afiliated scholar with Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, an assistant professor in the Communications Department, Santa Clara University and a board member of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Mar 8, 2002