Long term commitments

Manufacturers have had a great engagement with ewaste and recycling lately. There have been some great instances of product stewardship. The coupon program Good Point Recycling just rolled out for free TV collections YEAR ROUND (not long line event based) could not have happened without a constructive dialogue.

Obviously, I have also blogged in the past about the cautions raised by Vance Packard in his 1960 book "the Waste Makers", which ranks with Rachael Carson's "Silent Spring" as a message that sobered up a generation about the planet and growth. But I also buy mutual funds with stock in electronics manufacturing, and I worship the productivity that computers and internet have brought to us since then.

Here is my observation about legislation, generally. Wonderful activists become enamoured with recycling systems. "Universal Waste" was the call in the 1990s, as it was the hazardous waste companies who held the podium when the questions were about ewaste and CRTs. Then Waste Bans in the late 1990s, followed by California ARF and retailer involvement in the earlier part of the decade.

Now several manufacturers are rolling out takeback programs. It might work out great. But to legislate their involvement is kind of a "marriage", and the rights and obligations of each party have to be looked at carefully. My experience is that I can develop a strong relationship with a representative of a manufacturer, but that their hands can become tied or they can get sent elsewhere.

If the manufacturers are somehow obligated, they have to have a say in how things are handled. If they have a say in the handling of the "ewaste", they want the valuable surplus property too. And they sure don't want ink cartridges sold to refillers, laptops refurbished, and other "counterfeit" or "piracy" or "used" or "market cannabalization". So they steer the business away from reuse to shredding companies with "zero tolerance" export policies.

And that is perfectly reasonable if they are footing the bill. Let's try that for a few years. But legislation is kind of a marriage. Are we so certain this will work out that we want to commit it to law without sunset?

I would feel much more comfortable if we focus the trial on TVs, which have a very limited reuse market and a very high stake costs and environmental impact. I'm 47, and my experience is that when I speak out cautiously to moderate legislation - whether it is packaging in MA 1992, or bottle bill, or Universal Waste, or Zero Export, or Advanced Recycling Fee, or now "Manufacturer Takeback", that I alienate 30% of my friends. Another 30% give blank stares. But the 40% remaining, whether they agree or disagree, give me credit for being accountable, transparent, and with integrity intact.

I am basically concerned that environmentalists who know little enough about the "secondary market" are willing to trade it back to OEMs in return for 15 cent per pound off solid waste costs. Not enough questions. The used car economy is 7 times the size of the new car economy, and the social costs of destroying working and resellable equipment may be considerable. Perhaps my children will live in a society with no personal property at all, the copper and aluminum and steel will belong to the original equipment manufacturer, they will just have a license to use their computer, and an agreement to return it when they are done. It might be great. It's available now, and it's called "leasing". But giving the manufacturers control over the laptops and cartridges in return for getting rid of the CRTs seems more like something to try out in a contract for a year or two, not something to legislate.

No comments: