What are we trading for the convenience of Producer Responsibility legislation? I believe one of the main intents of making the manufacturers of products responsible for the life cycle impacts of their products (from production through disposal) is to internalize costs that are transferred to society as a whole. Producer responsibility is supposed to shift environmental costs related to disposal of their products back on to the manufacturer. Ideally, a manufacturer will try to reduce their products' lifecycle costs (and negative environmental impacts) in order to reduce their operating costs and increase profits.
In the e-waste industy, this goal is not being achieved with the current set of Producer Responsibility legislation enacted in various states. These e-waste laws have successfully shifted some of the cost of e-waste recycling from taxpayer supported programs (or individual consumers who paid recycling fees) to manufacturers who must now manage e-waste collection and recycling programs or pay penalties to states.
But these inititatives create no incentives for manufacturers to design more easily recyclable electronics. There is no relationship between what Dell pays to recycle some other brand of monitor and what it chooses to design into its new monitors. New product designs are built on market demand, design requirements, and profit margins. If our society wants manufacturers to design more environmentally friendly products, then we need to create the demand for them (through programs like EPEAT) or set design requirements that apply across the board (through regulations like RoHS). Engineers will then use their ingenuity to create products to meet these requirements and make their companies the most money.
What now concerns me about Producer Responsibility programs related to e-waste and electronics recycling is that these new state laws are stiffling innovation and new business development in the recycling sector. It's also giving more power to multi-national organizations to make decisions on recycling in an effort to increase efficiencies and reduce costs.
Typically, recycling and waste management decisions are made on a local basis, because of the significant expense to transport low valued products any significant distance. But it is not efficient for manufacturers to contract with dozens, or possibly hundreds of local based e-waste recyclers to manage their recycling obligations in the 26 plus states now requiring some type of e-waste recycling program. Instead, they have selected a small group of larger processors who can service their needs across the country. It's costly to contract with multiple vendors, so a handful have emerged to capture a large amount of market share in this industry. We always knew consolidation would take place in this industry, and the proliferation of state producer responsibility laws has accelerated this trend.
As a result, it's nearly impossible for a new company to emerge to serve the consumer sector in states where producers are "responsible" for the e-waste program. They can't get a contract with a manufacturer - they won't even get a call back.
It's not necessarily the case that the big e-waste firms are not responsible. In fact, it's more likely that they have the resources to better protect the environment and worker health and safety than emerging firms bootstrapping their growth.
But what concerns me is a trend I see developing in the e-waste industry that scares sustainability advocates in another sector of the economy. America's small family farm economy has been overwhelmed by factory farms that operate at a significantly larger scale. Desicions on how to farm are driven more by yield and cost, then by flavor and long-term sustainability. Regions develop monocultures of produce and ship them around the world at a great "external" expense to our carbon footprint, soil health, worker exposure to pesticides, water use, etc. Environmental advocates have recognized the assualt on our land from these agricultural ventures, and have pushed a local food movement in response. These local farmers may not be as efficient, but they employ more individuals, have an interest in the long term health of their land, and produce food that sure tastes a lot better.
I'm not sure where this Producer Responsibility legislation will take us, but I don't think it's the end-all for environmentalists and economists. I see some of the unintended consequences taking shape that should be corrected soon. Our society shouldn't absolve ourselves from any responsibility related to the management of life cycle impacts of consumer products by expecting Producer Responsibility laws to solve all of our problems. These laws aren't the reason manufacturers will create environmentally friendly products. It also won't internalize any external costs transferred to the rest of our society. Worse than that, it's giving manufacturers more power in deciding how to recycle electronics. Do we want them to make these decisions for us? Will we end up with something worse than what we have now?