The Blame Game: Who is Responsible for E-Waste? / by The Green Medium

The topic of E-Waste is actually quite controversial. I mean, there’s no question as to whether it’s a problem or not, but placing blame is another story. Who is responsible for the proper disposal of hazardous electronic waste: producer, consumer or some other entity entirely? Answering this is more difficult than it might at first seem.

10+ years ago it may have been easier, but in recent years the distinction between producer and consumer has become increasingly less defined. Companies are asking their customers what they want to see and customers are eagerly providing feedback. Though this isn’t an entirely novel or modern concept, the extent to which consumers are getting involved in the production process has greatly increased. It’s more than just dollar voting, consumers are using their thoughts and opinions to influence which products companies produce, rather than just their money. Keeping this in mind it is easier to see how determining responsibility for e-waste is a difficult problem. Yes, companies are producing excessive amounts of electronic goods, continually updating and upgrading their products, but it is the consumers who are demanding this constant innovation. 

 

Producers and consumers work so closely during the design phase of these products, perhaps they could also collaborate on their disposal or better yet design with the environment in mind. The recyclability (how easy a substance is to recycle) of various materials is well researched and documented. Manufacturers could choose to design with more easily recyclable materials and are more likely to do so if there are incentives involved. One paper I read suggests that quantitatively rating company’s products based on how eco-friendly they are could encourage producers to employ eco-design. Technology exists to properly deal with hazardous e-waste, but it is often extremely expensive. The financial burden of e-waste recycling could be placed on manufacturers whose products don’t meet minimum eco-design standards. Companies could still produce electronics with components that are not easy to recycle, but would then have to be responsible for dealing with the disposal of their outmoded devices. 

A chart categorizing the recyclability of various electronic components 

A chart categorizing the recyclability of various electronic components 

Consumers can also be given more responsibility for e-waste disposal, if resources for proper recycling are readily available to them. If it is easy for a customer to responsibly dispose of their old tech, they are more likely to do so; this one is sort of a no-brainer. In terms of collaboration, many companies provide monetary rewards for customers who return their old devices when upgrading to a new one, like giving them a certain dollar amount off their new product for example. Making this a more universal practice could certainly be a factor in mitigating e-waste production. 

In short, there isn’t really one party at fault when it comes to e-waste…at least not one sentient party.  There are two components to every electronic device; hardware and software, but only one component becomes e-waste. It will be interesting to see how software advancements can reduce our dependence on hardware and in turn help to minimize the amount of e-waste is created in the first place.

Sources:

Humphreys, Ashlee, and Kent Grayson. "The Intersecting Roles of Consumer and Producer: A Critical Perspective on Co‐production, Co‐creation and Prosumption." Sociology Compass 2.3 (2008): 963-980

Zeng, Xianlai, and Jinhui Li. "Measuring the recyclability of e-waste: an innovative method and its implications." Journal of Cleaner Production (2016)