E-waste Policy is broken — just like the old TV you can’t throw out. Here’s how businesses are fixing it.
Shoot! The last TV you had in inventory didn’t sell, even with the 30% off markdown on store shelves. Donating it would require transportation costs, shipping it would result in shipping costs, and keeping it in inventory would lead to outlandish storage costs. In a moment of despair, you put it outside to be picked up by waste collectors. What happens now? Most likely, it very soon will end up in the landfill.
As your TV breaks down in due time, it will begin to leak mercury and other harmful chemical contaminants into the nearby environment. While making up only 2% of waste in landfills, studies have shown that electronic waste represents a resounding 70% of all toxic waste. This toxic waste most often ends up in the air, water, and soil, damaging the health of communities living nearby.
In order to prevent such toxic e-waste, about half of US states have passed e-waste policies targeted at Covered Electronic Devices (“CED’’) which consist largely of monitors, TVs, and computers. These policies vary greatly state to state, but most of the burden falls on manufacturers. One of these states with less restrictive policy, Utah requires manufacturers of CEDs to provide public education on e-recycling options but does not actually require them to do or recycle anything. On the opposite end of the spectrum, states like Minnesota and Hawaii require manufacturers to coordinate with recycling companies to recycle their market share of CED sales in states. If they fail to do so, they are forbidden from selling in the state.
Despite these policies, only 15.5% of US e-waste is properly recycled, meaning that nearly 7 million tons of e-waste ends up in US landfills each year. Why is this the case? For one, the disparity in e-waste policies and focus on only CEDs means that in many places it is not required to recycle a lot of e-waste. Thus, the decision to recycle is often left up to the consumer and it’s often far cheaper and easier to avoid recycling entirely. This means items like fridges, cellphones, and your trusty old Walkman from 1990 will most likely end up in the trash. Another reason that the metric is lower than expected is that most e-recycling is not done properly, either being sent abroad or done using harmful chemicals that undermine its potential environmental impact.
An obvious solution to the problem of e-waste would be an expanded and more manufacturer-friendly e-waste policy that covers more types of electronic waste, and monitors the recycling practices and processes. However, manufacturing lobbies, state politics, and high implementation costs will pose formidable barriers to these policies ever seeing the light of day. As the systems that force consumers and manufacturers to act environmentally friendly are limited, we must instead look to create systems that healthily incentivize manufacturers to do so using profit margin gains. Besides, who doesn’t love to profit while saving the environment at the same time?
A good case study for the type of change some startups are creating in the waste space to amend imperfect policy implementation for business can be seen in the company Imperfect Foods. Founded in 2015 with the mission to eliminate food waste, Imperfect Foods has created a system that provides consumers with imperfect yet delicious food, at a cheaper cost. They have been able to create value in what was once considered trash, while profiting off of it and expanding their customer base. This is in itself a solution to the imperfect environmental policy of old where waste, even food waste, can become a major cost for producers. It should go without saying that if people are willing to pay for a wonky potato there is most definitely significant value to be found in your old cracked TV. Or, maybe even value in the parts alone? Possibly in the precious metals? Studies have shown that in discarded phones alone, $60 million of gold/silver can be found annually. These materials that would all normally go to waste are now being used to create profit for businesses, fix a fractured implementation of environmental policy, and allow for a much wider consumer base. Now that is the definition of finding treasure in trash.