Would You Pay a Premium for Electronics Recycling?

From a review in today’s New York Times of Berkeley economic professor of Public Policy and former Clinton administration labor secretary Robert Reich’s new book, Supercapitalism:

One of the book’s examples of consumers’ hypocrisy has to do with canned tuna. J. W. Connolly, former president of Heinz U.S.A., which was the parent company of StarKist, explains that “consumers wanted a dolphin-safe product,” but “if there was a dolphin-safe can of tuna next to a regular can, people chose the cheaper product. Even if the difference was a penny.” The company terminated its higher-cost effort to protect dolphins. After all, it’s a business, beholden to consumers and shareholders.

With such vignettes culled from the news media, Mr. Reich disembowels proponents of corporate “social responsibility.” He shows that companies like Wal-Mart are operating legally yet being shamed into incurring social costs that their competitors are not. Critics’ campaigns are a misleading diversion, he argues, because they confuse businesses with what they can never be: public interest bodies.

I’m reminded of a study I read recently (and can’t find again) that held that many Americans who choose not to purchase a car with a high rate of fuel efficiency on their own also supported the idea of a federally-mandated lower threshold on fuel efficiency for car manufacturers.

Are we as a species unable to rectify higher personal cost for an ultimate societal benefit? Because if so, it’s going to make the idea of paying more for electronics that include a cradle-to-grave recycling and materials reclamation process an unlikely success. (And that’s the very idea I’ve been thinking would be useful for a long time.) Presuming recycling of products should be a manufacturer’s responsibility in the first place, will it take government regulation to enact these sort of initiatives?

Strangely, the only examples I can think of people paying a premium for electronics en masse are for luxury items, like the first iPods and other high-end, design-heavy products.

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13 Responses to Would You Pay a Premium for Electronics Recycling?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Robert Reich is a professor of Public Policy, not an economist.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The Alberta levy has been well received as far as I can tell. You should see the mounds and mounds and giant container loads of crud that shows up every weekend!

    Because you pay at time of purchase, it is relatively painless given the relatively small amounts tacked on.

    And, because the actual work is contracted out to private service providers, it looks like it is quite efficient.

  3. Anonymous says:

    this reminds me of something i read a few weeks ago. (possibly the freakonomics blog) the post was about fuel efficient SUVs and how even though consumers said they favored more fuel efficient vehicles, they were unwilling to pay more for them. the analogy used in that post was about hockey players back in the 70s (?) when helmets were not mandatory. while most players said they supported using helmets and thought they were a good idea, few actually did. although they clearly understood the benefit in using a helmet, they were reluctant to do so because they felt not wearing a helmet gave them a certain edge on the ice (e.g. a helmetless player looks more fearless and brutal than a helmet wearing player) the NHL eventually made helmet wearing mandatory. same principle applies here. in theory, people want to do the right thing but end up choosing what benefits them as an individual the most. an “objective” third party needs to step in make what is agreed to be best for everyone mandatory (not just the individual)

  4. Anonymous says:

    The WEE directive (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waste_Electrical_and_Electronic_Equipment) as mentioned by another commenter, has been law in Ireland since 2005. Retailers of electrical and electronic equipment are obliged to provide a take back service for customers buying new electrical equipment. The cost is transferred to the consumer & ranges from 50c, (less than $1)for small items such as batteries, lamps, CD players to €30 (approx $40) for large items, such as a large fridge/freezer.

    Since 2002, there is also a plastic bag levy in Ireland which has been very successful in reducing plastic bag waste. The levy is 22c (approx US50c) Revenue from this goes to national Environmental Fund.

    The thinking behind this, in very simple terms is that landfills can’t keep on being found & filled forever and consumers should be more responsible & careful about what we use.

  5. Anonymous says:

    There are psychographic predictors of individual propensity toward “greenness” and indeed toward many more communitarian ideals. Both the psychographic markers and the behaviors tend to track educational level. Suggestive, no?

  6. julian says:

    Presuming recycling of products should be a manufacturer’s responsibility in the first place, will it take government regulation to enact these sort of initiatives?

    A number of companies have already done this to an extent, though I think it really will take government intervention to make it a much wider reality. Although it’s still reasonably early days in terms of the WEEE directive in Europe, it’s going to be interesting to see the degree to which companies actually comply with it in terms of how difficult/easy it is to get the tech we’re buying today taken back in a few years.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waste_Electrical_and_Electronic_Equipment_Directive

  7. Anonymous says:

    Alberta, Canada has a “E-Cycling” levy on all purchases of gadgetry: http://www.albertarecycling.ca/
    ——
    From the site:
    Environmental fees
    Environmental fees are collected on the sale of new eligible electronics in Alberta. These fees are used to:

    * Collect, transport and recycle unwanted electronics,
    * Develop research into new recycling technologies, and
    * Build awareness and support for the electronics recycling programs.

    Televisions
    * 18-inch screen and smaller: $15
    * 19-inch to 29-inch screen: $25
    * 30-inch to 45-inch screen: $30
    * 46-inch and larger screen: $45

    Computer Equipment

    * Computer monitors (LCD and CRT): $12
    * CPUs and servers (also covers recycling of keyboard, mouse, cables, and speakers): $10
    * Printer/printer combinations: $8
    * Laptop and notebook computers: $5

    ———–

    I think other provinces are doing the same. I’m not a big fan of taxes, but I know that it was sure nice to have a depot visit with my *ahem* pickup truckload of old e-crud…

  8. Anonymous says:

    I posted comment No 8 – the plastic bag levy was welcomed & had been a success. People realised that automatically getting a plastic bag every time you bought something was wasteful. The levy isn’t for every kind of bought item, e.g. clothes are now all packed in recyclable and/or recycled paper bags in the shop when you buy. When you shop for other items (food, drink etc)you are asked if you want a bag, if you say yes, you pay for it. Lots people carry their own bag to shop with, some are handy folding ones that fit na handbag or pocket. Many retailers & supermarkets produced environmental friendly canvas bags that can be bought cheaply (usually €1-2, apporc $4) which can be re-used for a long time.

    Ireland still has a long way to go in meeting recycling targets to match many other European countries esp. regarding household waste – only about 25% is being recycled nationally. But electric & electronic recycling is very high (the target set by the Irish government has been met) as is building/construction materials recycling (approx 88%). There has been a building boom in Ireland for approx 15 years now.

    The electrical/electronic recycling charge is not prohibitive & the cost is included in the amount you pay for an item. The cost is shown clearly to indicate the amount that’s been added for recycling.

    Also retailers are obliged to swap like for like eg, if you buy a new toaster & return an old one the retailer should take it to be recycled.

    So far, I haven’t heard any resentment about the electronic/electrical recycling charge.

  9. Joel Johnson says:

    @#7 and #8: Those are both very interesting projects! What’s the general public sentiment about them? I’m sure there’s the usual grumbling about the levy, but do people seem to get a good idea of why it is important?

  10. Anonymous says:

    You should take a look at Steven Landsburg of Slate.com’s August 15 article about hypocrisy, where he provides aclear examples of this same phenomonon.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2172282/

    “Start with an example from Economics 101: Ten neighbors are willing to pay $20 each to install a streetlight that costs $100. But when you take up a voluntary collection, nobody contributes. Instead, each neighbor figures (perfectly rationally) that if the other neighbors want to build a streetlight, he might as well let them build a streetlight and ride along for free. The result? Darkness. On the other hand, if everyone is taxed $10, the streetlight gets built and everyone is happy. And if you take a vote, everyone votes for the tax.

    Each neighbor’s first choice is to have a light that other people pay for. Second choice is to be taxed, and last choice is to go without the light. That’s a rational ordering of preference, from free-riding to paying equal shares to making do without a service. And while it’s selfish, certainly, I don’t know anyone who would label it hypocritical. ”

    When you ask corporations to voluntarily make their tuna ‘dolphin-free’ the “smart” companies won’t do it because they know if their product is a penny cheaper they will still sell more tuna.

    This little economics lesson argues that those things that are really important (e.g. dolphin free tuna) should be legislated …

    Cheers,
    Chuck

  11. Joel Johnson says:

    And there you have it. Case closed!

  12. Anonymous says:

    Fistly, my second comment above was posted twice. Not by me as it has to be approved, can one of these be deleted please? Thank you. (Note to self – register to comment…)

    Reagrding, as mentioned above ‘psychographic markers and behaviors’ being linked to education levels this may have some merit. However, if these practices are adopted into law it over-rides these factors and the behaviour becomes part of the general population’s routine and habits.

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