Aggregating Recycling of E-Waste

There are some fallacies floating around in the promotion of one form of legislation over another.

Massachusetts was first to regulate CRT disposal, with a waste ban (began on April 2000). MA DEP used the same authority (RCRA) that it had used for auto battery, tire, and white goods. Later, MA DEP even used RCRA to ban disposal of paper, glass and plastic containers, and yard waste. Cities generally incorporated the costs into their hauling contracts, though some sold stickers for bulky items to their residents (risking dumping, but their own staff had stickers to tag stuff). The result is high recycling diversion, even from inner cities like Boston and Worcester.

In the cities, the CRTs were incorporated into the same bulky waste collection system as the tires and white goods (fridges, air conditioners, washing machines), and the trash haulers had to bid on the bulky items in order to get the lucrative city hauling contracts.

I've heard three arguments about why that system needed fixing.

First, the socialist argument. The consumer shouldn't have to pay. We should make the manufacturers pay. Well, this is a quaint idea. The consumer always pays. The costs get incorporated. Further, when you reduce competition (new display manufacturers cannot sell into certain states without a manufacturing program), the consumer loses big time. Many of these new display manufacturers barely speak English, and face the same problems USA's RCA did selling into Japan in the 1970s and 80s. (America called Japan's local recycling collection laws a "non-tariff barrier" and dispute them at the WTO).

Second argument, people would refuse to pay. I think a lot of this was conjecture, of the type we heard over bottled water and $3 coffee. 85% of people will pay the toll bridge rather than drive around through traffic. I have been told that high participation in free events proves people won't pay, yet a) more material is collected in paid events in VT, even when free is available b) counties with fees collect more per capita than counties with lower fees, and c) if, during a free event, I run an event paying $5 per item and the line is longer, that doesn't prove people won't recycle for free. If Starbucks offers free coffee, expect long lines of regular coffee drinkers, and don't expect non-coffee drinkers in the line.

Third argument against the waste ban model was that more material would get exported. There is a mix of truth to this, but I differ on the cause. The states which have implemented OEM producer responsibility laws, having the OEMs negotiate with the recyclers (rather than the municipalities), have seen less export for reuse and repair. The state officials can defer to a national policy and not deal with recyclers in their states. I've written about the weaknesses of that before, I'll leave this as a benefit and discuss another time whether it's the best way of achieving the benefit.

So, in the end, was the 9+ year old MA law flawed? The new argument is that Minnesota had higher diversion rates per capita, so that proved Minnesota is more effective. But recyclers have been hauling Curtis Mathis TVs and wooden consoles and 1992 Apple Mac SEs out of Massachusetts for nearly a decade, while Minnesota didn't address them for 8 years, tweaking the 'perfect' collection system.

The diversion rate needs to be calculated over the decade. If my neighbor waits 8 more weeks to mow his lawn, and then shows this weekend's grass clippings weigh more than mine, does that prove he has a better lawnmower?

MN should have at least implemented the waste ban while waiting to pass its legislation, and all states should do the same. EPA could do that tomorrow with a gutsy RCRA move. That might even spur passage of the product stewardship legislation. Or individual counties, like Addison County in Vermont, can implement CRT bans on their own. Addison County did so, and now has the highest CRT diversion rates per capita in the state.

That means any county representative reading this in any state should try collecting the CRTs at $10 apiece right now, and recycle them. If you see people are willing and eager to do that, as we have seen in Arizona and MA and Vermont and NH, that people are willing to wait in a long line even to pay $10, then you have your budget. Now you have enough money to choose the right recyclers. Now you can put your own waste ban sign in your own yard.

If e-waste legislation does pass, no harm, you will already be in the game. If it takes a few more years, you can enjoy being part of the solution before your time.

Don't wait around for a national model to mow your lawn.

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