Who Pays the Real Cost of Our Toxic Trash?
“Who pays the real cost of toxic waste,” Jared Blumenfeld, San Francisco
The fact is, most of us don't
realize that many of the products we throw away are hazardous to our health
and the environment. And even when we do have an inkling that
something really shouldn't go in the trash, we wonder: Where do I put dead
batteries? What about a broken VCR, or that annoying musical greeting card?
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nearly 75 percent of
old electronics are in storage, in part because people don't know what to do
Because these items can no longer go in the garbage cart, cities must expand
services and create new collection programs. Local governments are facing
the multimillion-dollar question: Who will pay the costs of handling
discarded consumer products that are toxic, reactive, combustible or
Right now, the answer is you and me. Taxpayers and garbage ratepayers
are footing the bill. Residents and businesses pay millions of dollars each
year for toxics collection, and this cost will only go up as more and more
materials that need special handling enter the waste stream.
By shouldering the costs of disposal, communities are essentially
subsidizing the manufacture of waste. Manufacturers know that no matter what
they produce and no matter how toxic the ingredients, local governments will
foot the bill for recycling or disposal. A manufacturer's
responsibility for its product now ends at the point of sale. Herein lies
the problem -- and the solution.
When brand owners are responsible for ensuring their products are recycled
responsibly, and when health and environmental costs are included in the
product price, there is a strong incentive to design goods to be more
durable, easy to recycle and less toxic. This is the thinking behind a
better approach to managing (and preventing) waste called "extended producer
Producer responsibility laws have been enacted in about 30 countries in
regions as diverse as Europe, Asia and Latin America. In 2004,
California promoted both producer and retailer responsibility with the Cell
Phone Recycling Act. Effective July 1, the law will require that cell
phone retailers have in place a system for the acceptance and collection of
used cell phones for reuse, recycling or proper disposal.
What's hazardous about cell phones? The batteries contain the toxic
metal cadmium, while the phone circuitry contains a number of toxic heavy
metals including lead, copper, antimony, chromium and nickel. Once the cell
phone is in a landfill or wherever else it ends up, the metals can
contaminate groundwater. This new law has given a jump-start to recycling
and refurbishing businesses, often run by manufacturers and retailers.
The recycling and disposal costs have shifted from local governments and
citizens to the manufacturers, retailers and, ultimately, the actual
cell-phone users themselves.
We need to work together to urge producer-responsibility policies. In
line with our efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle, producer responsibility
reduces waste as well as costs to ratepayers and taxpayers, while protecting
public health and the environment. We simply need to wrap our heads
around the not-so-radical notion that the people who create and use toxic
products should pay for their disposal.