Sunday, April 17, 2011

Extended Producer Responsibility Laws Reduce E-Waste

Why are Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies an effective method for reducing hazardous electronic (e-) waste? Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry1 describes EPR as policy instruments “that hold manufacturers accountable for the full costs of their products at every stage in their life cycle” (p.247). Equipment is taken back at the end of its useful life by the producer, or hired contractor, for recycling. This way, products containing environmental or health-damaging components will not contribute to pollution in landfills, incinerators, or in the informal recycling system (exposure for scrap pickers). Producers are forced to internalize the costs of disposal and, therefore, are more likely to implement product design changes to minimize non-recyclable and hazardous materials.

The European Union (EU) passed two directives in 2003 dealing with electronic wastes. The Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) made manufacturers responsible for managing e-waste disposal. The Restrictions on the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (RoHS) phased-out the use of hazardous materials in such equipment (p.265). Why does EPR work? First, these restrictions created a market opportunity for companies to sell their products in the EU and beyond. It would have been prohibitively expensive for manufacturers to have separate non-hazardous and hazardous product lines. Plus firms did not want to face bad publicity or liability for hazardous versions of their products (p.248). So they anticipated legislative changes and redesigned their entire product lines. Second, individual manufacturer responsibility rules forced companies to fully internalize the cost of e-waste disposal. This drove the innovations in design that reduced disposal costs and fostered ease of recycling (p.275).

While the EU was successful in instituting the EPR directives above, similar policies face implementation obstacles in the United States. Powerful industry associations, like the Electronics Industry Alliance (EIA), have argued for voluntary recycling programs and defended the use of certain materials in electronic products (p.266). The American Electronics Association (AEA) resisted sharing up-front costs of recycling. They also claimed material bans would undermine the functionality, reliability, and safety of their products (p.248). Furthermore, they sought help from the federal government’s U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) who put counter pressure on the EU, saying the regulations violated the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and were “unnecessary barriers to trade” (p.248-9). In a later affront to EPR, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) prohibited the federal government from adopting preferences for environmentally sustainable products (p.257).

EPR’s success in the U.S. depends on organizations’ ability to attract more industry support, like that won from Hewlett-Packard and Dell in the 2001 Computer TakeBack Campaign (p.250). In addition, strong state (and eventually national) laws that reflect the true spirit of EPR must be enacted to force manufacturers to internalize the costs of toxic materials in their bottom lines.

~Mark Bremer, Green Explored Contributor

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[1] Smith, T., Sonnenfeld, D., Pellow, D. Hightower, J (2006). Challenging the Chip: Labor Rights and Environmental Justice in the Global Electronics Industry. Temple University Press. Philadelphia, Pa.

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