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Learning from Others, for instance Switzerland or Japan

Switzerland or Japan and e-waste:

Japan :

Japan currently has two policies in place for managing e-waste. Broadly, responsibility for proper disposal of such waste in the country falls upon both manufacturers and consumer. The first of these policies, the Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources (LPUR), focuses on the disposal of personal computers and small appliances and requires manufacturers to provide access to proper recycling facilities. The second policy, namely the Law for Recycling Specified Kinds of Home Appliances, meanwhile requires consumers to pay for the cost of transporting and recycling appliances like televisions, air conditions, refrigerators, and other such household technologies.

The aforementioned policies are implemented at the federal level, and are overseen by multiple ministries. Their success is in large part due to the shared responsibility for e-waste as stipulated by the two laws, with both consumers and manufacturers involved in shouldering this important burden. This agreement was made possible by the limited amount of land in Japan. The country has a densely populated – and varied – landscape with few natural resources, and its population and manufacturers must consequently rely heavily on the recycling and reuse of electronics. Sharing costs in turn reduces them, and firms and citizens alike are therefore incentivized to cooperate with the program.

In Switzerland:

the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment has implemented a policy entitled the Ordinance on The Return, the Taking Back and the Disposal of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (ORDEE). The implementation of e-waste management in the country is organized by producer responsibility organizations (PRO), in which manufacturers cooperate to meet standards. PROs manage e-waste through financing, transportation and collection, and by controlling the waste system itself.  The current structure has proven successful to date because of the collective effort entailed, with industries cooperating to responsibly handle e-waste. PROs work in the best interests of both manufacturers and consumers to ensure that electronics are taken and disposed of in a responsible manner. Such a program could prove successful in the United States as well if electronics manufacturers communicated and agreed upon set standards to uphold, coupled with a joint approach to the overall management of e-waste.

Programs such as detailed above could work in countries like the United States if consumers and businesses agree to shoulder part of the burden for disposing of e-waste. In Japan, this type of burden sharing has been accepted more on account of economic rather than environmental reasons. The same model could be applied in the US. American consumers would need to adjust their disposal processes, and businesses pay for transporting old electronics to recycling facilities – as opposed to continue disposing of them in landfills. Promisingly, for the many companies that already dispose of their electronics in a responsible manner, the costs are negligible. Furthermore, there are now fines in place in the US targeting companies that improperly dispose of e-waste. In 2015, for example, Comcast was forced to pay almost $26 million to California due to laws already in place in that state. Similarly, Big Lots, Dolgen California (owner of Dollar General), and Apple have likewise had to pay millions of dollars in fines for improper e-waste disposal.

Nevertheless, it is clear that more incentives are needed in order to encourage further change on the part of business. This is where a program such as the one in Switzerland could play a key role, through the provision of assistance as well as cost-sharing incentives. By combining these models – both Japan’s burden sharing approach and by implementing a system such as that currently in place in Switzerland – other countries like the United States could create comprehensive systems that effectively tackle the pressing problem of e-waste. Meanwhile, with the cooperation of manufacturers, businesses would not have to absorb all of the entailed costs. In this vein, the manufacturers would play backup for whatever costs businesses prove unable to afford, for example managing transportation and disposal costs.

If the involved parties are brought to agreement, e-waste can be disposed of properly and in a less expensive manner. Indeed, the systems in Switzerland and Japan work largely because they are voluntary. Voluntary programs are effective because businesses are given the opportunity to experiment with new programs without excessive upfront regulation. At the same time, there are often financial rewards for compliance, depending on how great the need for cooperation is. The consumers and businesses involved have been found to view participation in such programs as a privilege rather than a limitation. That said, in order for these systems to be voluntary in a country like the United States, a large number of leading companies and manufacturers would need to first come to an agreement on how to remodel the current structure of operations.

In sum, despite the existence of policies designed to promote sustainable e-waste disposal, there still remain significant implementation challenges. One such challenge is the fact that there is currently no set way to ensure that businesses follow the regulations in question. There are, in other words, no penalties for ignoring such policies at present. The amount of e-waste continues to grow each year, and without suitable enforcement mechanisms this will become even more of a global problem. Yet another challenge, in the US context, is incentivizing American companies to purchase green electronics. Currently, the government provides no economic incentives for businesses to purchase sustainably produced technology.  If programs such as the ones already in place in Japan and Switzerland are to be successfully realized in countries like the United States, more cooperation will be needed on all sides – from the consumer to the manufacturer – in order to provide the necessary incentives to innovate.