University Town Illustrates the Flaws in America's Consumer E-waste Handling

E-waste Collection at UW-Madison Moving Days - 2016

We've show how, in my locality, America's approach to consumer e-waste provides dis-incentives to rural residents. This post shows the same dynamic at play with university students. But the city did temporarily remove one barrier during a flood.

Europe uses the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) integrates the environmental costs of product life cycles into the market price of the products. One cost, that of responsible e-waste disposal, can be integrated into product prices by requiring the manufacturer to assume that responsibility. This is sometimes called 'take-back'. The European Commission's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive explicitly places this responsibility on consumer electronics manufacturers so that all consumers can dispose of their e-waste easily and free of charge.

America, by contrast, has no such national policy. Local governments often implement e-waste collection schemes that incorporate strong dis-incentives for consumers. These typically include the requirement for consumers to transport items to a central facility and to pay processing fees.

I live in a public university community in which students make up a significant percent of the population. Many live in private housing. Moving days, during which leases expire and students change apartments, falls in mid-August. The municipality make a concerted effort to coordinate and execute a curbside pick-up program of furniture, appliances and other trash during this period, but takes the opposite approach to e-waste.

The municipality's publication on moving days e-waste contains multiple references to the requirement to transport items, to pay fees, and to provide proof of local residency.

These requirements could not be better designed to discourage student participation. The drop-off site is 2-3 miles from the student housing area and many students do not have cars. Local residency proof can be difficult for students, and expenses such as processing fees and transportation cost can be discouraging as well. The results in past years have been a large number of electronics placed on the curb or in bins against city policy, including analog televisions with their toxic metals.

Convenient drop-off sites backed community-led initiatives are more likely to yield better compliance.

The university did offer an on-campus drop-off site for e-waste in 2016, but not this year. The university's IT department does accept some electronics for recycling, but not the most hazardous - and therefore most important - items like CRTs.

2018.08.30 update: The city did waive the recycling fee on electronics for a 9-day period during a recent flood, an implicit recognition that the American practice of end-user fees are a dis-incentive to proper e-waste disposal. Residents are still required to transport the items to one of two drop-off locations. Electronics were specifically excluded from the special flood damage curb-side collection initiative, although the city did note, "Televisions contain hazardous material like lead and mercury. Placing televisions at the curb risks them being broken, and releasing their hazardous material into the storm drain system."