Sunday, May 4, 2008

Collective and Individual WEEE Take Back

New York City Council and Mayor Bloomberg recently came into an agreement over amandatory electronic waste (e-waste) take back law. My paper looked into the responsibility of the consumer, government and manufacturer to provide take back services for electronics.

Bloomberg's statement was the following:
“Look, nobody’s more in favor of recycling, and the reason that we focus on electronic equipment is there’s a lot of very heavy metal chemicals in electronic components that if you just put in a garbage dump they don’t just go away with time the way paper would and some of the other things that get thrown away. Organic materials go away. These really pollute and they pollute badly. The trouble with this law that the City Council passed is that you hold the manufacturers responsible for the public to recycle and the manufacturers can’t do that. They don’t sell directly to the public in many cases, they sell to wholesalers, and the wholesalers, you’re not holding them responsible, but also it’s the [consumer's] responsibility.”

Bloomberg advocates more of an individual take back system without requirements. Individual take back is when the manufacturer holds responsibility for taking back electronics. Collective take back is handled by the local government and the government sells the recyclable/reusable/remanufacturable products to the original manufacturer or competing remanufacturers in order to pay for the services rendered.

A study at Syracuse maintains that individual e-waste take back allows the manufacturer to monopolize the remanufacturing industry, while collective take back allows for a competitive remanufacturing industry to develop, and even results in higher profits for both sides in some scenarios. I also argued that instituting take back laws and requiring that manufacturers be financially responsible for the disposal and take back of their products will encourage better design. There exist numerous techniques for phasing out harmful materials as well as designing products so that they are much more quickly dismantled and that reusable parts, recyclable parts, and hazardous parts are all organized and sorted for safe and swift handling.

Additionally, a lot of individual take back, takes place through consumer awareness of programs. These require that the consumer mail the company or return to a retailer. In a survey of 21 NYC residents, only 5 out of 21 respondents had made use of the retailer take-back system. The recycling rate of computers (a toxic waste) at HP is about 15%. For comparison, the recycling rates for automobile batteries is 99% (a toxic waste) and plastic soft drink bottles (not so toxic) is 31% (EPA).

The decided upon legislation requires that companies take back items that customers return, but does not incorporate city collection. This individual take back is not as preferable to collective take back from an economical, design, manufacturer investment, and customer participation standpoint. From the survey, about 75% of respondents affirmed that the most desirable take back method is a sorted bin outside of their home or apartment. The city should offer such a measure, especially with the analog to digital TV switch fast approaching (NYTIMES comment). Individual take back is a slow and limited option, and will be especially useless if Bloomberg does not approve the targets being set by the council in the future.

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