The Trouble with "E-Waste" Stewardship: Part I

I'm not against Product Stewardship.  

keys to the city

The problem is, in their very first foray into command and control of "waste" and "markets", they chose something poorly defined and extremely complicated.  By applying a vocabulary change, and an invented word "e-Waste", they made surplus electronics policy and RCRA look a whole lot simpler than it is.

Looking back, I can see how we created some Myths about "E-Waste" [Top 10: Greenwala], and got ourselves into a world of ghost tonnage, capacitor recalls, conspicuous consumption,  planned obsolescence, local taxes, patent extension, non-tariff trade barriers, mineral policy, Egyptian revolutions and social engineering in the developing world.   So many things, it turns out, that running a successful paper recycling business, with a CDL from Boston, had qualified me, and others like me, to put ourselves in charge of.

One reason I went into electronics recycling was that it's rich and complicated field.  Compared to paper recycling (where I cut my teeth at a self-sustaining NGO Earthworm Inc. in Boston), computer recycling was dynamic.  Used PCs were extremely complex, with software issues (growth of software, not bad design, doomed the 486, Pentium I, etc.), repair and upgrade, counterfeiting, planned obsolescence, and international trade.  The analog signal auctions planned in 1996 to replace analog rabbit-ear TVs, the hard rock copper mining, the Superfund bankruptcy, mercury and toxics, and digital divide... It was like I'd moved from the farming communities of the Ozarks to live in a Recycling Policy Metropolis.

Having worked for 8 years in state government, I can tell you that state and county employees got excited by this too.   My years at DEP were a thrill and an honor, as I was able to recruit or hire some of the best and brightest staff in my lifetime.   We had a half a floor of environmentalists with policy and engineering degrees, many from prestigious schools in Boston.  And we had a track record - we had created curbside recycling, in the shoes of the officials who made bottle bill returns the law before us.  We had taken two laws, the bottle bill and RCRA, designed to promote solid waste, and had done things like create recycled paper content in federal purchases, saving trees and baby owls, and making it incredibly easy for our neighbors across the street to do so.  We made some mistakes (fodder for another blog), but on the balance, our market interference created certainty of recycling raw material supply, which had been the main problem for paper mills who were more confident about supply from a forest they owned than a fickly Earth Day hippie do-gooder marketplace.

So after a couple of decades of recycling successes, state recycling departments were flush.

We'd tackle "toxics next".  As I said to the staff in my last years at DEP (going strategically to take oversight of another department, perhaps), landfills weren't closing because they were too heavy.  The issue with unlined landfill closure was toxics.  We had to position ourselves to assess the quality of the waste we were diverting.

It was my own private mission creep, but as I grew my own department, others in the business of state government grew their agendas as well.

Tomorrow Part II:   How States Rushed In to Surplus Technology Policy

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