Free Recycling

“THE WASHINGTON STATE LEGISLATURE today passed the most comprehensive electronic waste recycling bill in the country, establishing a program to provide residents with free, safe and simple recycling of computers and TVs.” So began a press release from the Computer Take Back Campaign, a lobbying group that supported the successful manufacturer's responsibility bill for e-waste recycling.

Free! What a great concept! Washington state residents don't have to pay a penny to recycle their electronics. The free lunch is alive and well in the Evergreen State.

To be fair, the press release was subtitled, “Manufacturers pay for simple and safe recycling.” So apparently the people who make computers and televisions will cover the cost of recycling, and their customers won't have to pay a penny.

“Free” is the bane of recycling. For years we have been told that recycling is free. That someone else — manufacturers or haulers or local governments — will pay for recycling, but “we” don't have to. More than one legislator speaking in favor of a proposed recycling bill has insisted that recycling would pay for itself or, better yet, that it would be free.

In the case of the Washington bill, the press release from the senator who sponsored the bill didn't claim e-waste recycling would be free, but the House sponsor's press release made that claim. Which makes me wonder what else he thinks is free.

I shouldn't be surprised. We all like freebies. And it doesn't matter how affluent we are. Goody bags were given away to attendees at a recent party for Oscar winners and nominees. I'd bet that one of the more dangerous places at the party was between a millionaire movie actor and his free bag.

The problem with “free” is that someone, somewhere is paying for the free service. The only people who believe that something is free are demagogues, con artists and economic illiterates.

Private industry knows better than the politicians and the folks at the Take Back Campaign. Industry knows that nothing is free. I'd be surprised if Hewlett Packard, the primary supporter of the bill, ever put out a press release claiming that its concept of manufacturer responsibility was free. As a manufacturer, the company knows the cost of recycling will be paid by its customers — who won't know what that cost is and may not notice the slightly higher price.

Another supporter of the legislation was the state retail association. In the politics of e-waste, retail companies argue that they shouldn't be burdened with taking back e-waste. (Gee, doesn't that sound like retailers saying they don't want to take back soda bottles?) But the retailers never said that e-waste recycling would be free. They know better. They just want someone else to pay.

I'm not saying the Washington law is a mistake. The law does not appear to create an unfunded mandate that forces local governments to pay for e-waste collection. Instead, the state will create a “third-party organization” to administer a “standard” plan for e-waste recycling, but it will also allow companies to set up their own program. In the best American tradition, the state of Washington is serving as a laboratory, launching a unique experiment in e-waste recycling. They may have selected a good financing model. I hope they succeed. But I bet the recycling won't be free.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at:

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.