Santa Clara University

STS Nexus

E-waste and the Greening of the Information Age

Chad Raphael

Introduction: Extended Producer Responsibility

The death of distance. Traffic in bytes replacing trade in bits. The rise of virtual reality, virtual offices, and virtual communities. These familiar promises suggest the diminishing significance of the physical environment as a barrier to communication and commerce. However, policy makers are increasingly recognizing that disposing of the obsolete tools of the global information economy, such as personal computers, cell phones, televisions, and fax machines, poses real threats to human health and the environment. This ironic revenge of the physical on the age of the virtual is reshaping the design of environmental policy and information technology.1

Across Europe and Asia recently enacted laws are starting to hold electronics manufacturers responsible for taking back their products at the end of their useful lives. This policy strategy, known as “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR), represents the most significant step yet taken toward the “greening” of information technology. Until recently, environmental policy has typically focused on regulating pollution at the point of production in mines, factories, and so on. EPR takes a broader view by attempting to minimize a product’s ecological footprint at each stage in its lifecycle. Take-back laws that require producers to assume responsibility for their used wares are EPR advocates’ favored instrument for fostering less wasteful, hazardous, and energy-consuming products.

Assessing electronics take-back laws illuminates the environmental policy challenges of the new world economy in three ways. First, it helps us grasp the hidden environmental costs of the crucial tools of globalization. Networked information devices enable and coordinate the increasing flow of goods and services across borders. In addition, these devices are themselves prime examples of the globally produced, consumed, recycled, and discarded product. Electronics components are not only fabricated and assembled in a truly worldwide web of contract-manufacturing and just-in-time production, but they are also recycled and discarded through a global network of waste haulers, recyclers, and exporters.

Second, examining take-back laws sheds light on a potential solution to some of the thorniest problems of global environmental justice. The stages in electronic products’ lifecycles impose much heavier environmental burdens on some local ecosystems and populations, especially those in the developing world that are involved in production and disposal. To the extent that EPR can reduce risks at each stage it can cure a significant environmental imbalance in the global economy.

Finally, EPR suggests an innovative concep­tion of corporate responsibility, with potentially dra­matic consequences for industry.  Take-back require­ments could spur important changes not only in how information devices are discarded, but how they are designed and marketed in the first place.

A Problem of Code

Despite claims that the shift from an indus­trial to a knowledge-based economy is environmen­tally preferable, increasing reliance on information technology takes a significant ecological and health toll of its own. Personal computers, for example, are highly resource-intensive to produce, use, and discard. Manu­facturing a single PC can generate 139 pounds of waste, consuming 7,300 gallons of water, and 2,300 kilowatt-hours of energy.2 PC components contain hundreds of toxic chemicals and heavy metals, including lead (in circuit boards and monitors), cadmium (in batter­ies and circuit boards), mercury (in switches), poly­chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in older capacitors and transformers, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (in cables and plastic casings).3 Among the human health risks posed by exposure to these substances in sufficient concentration are cancer, respiratory diseases,hyper-tension, brain damage, and birth defects.

Therefore, the process of recycling and dis­posing of electronic waste (or e-waste) is a poten­tially hazardous undertaking. When components cannot be reused, recyclers aim to recover materials of value from them, such as small amounts of gold and other metals. Without appropriate protective gear and procedures, disassembly and extraction of these materials can expose workers and nearby com­munities to toxics released in the process. Leftover materials have historically been dumped in landfills or incinerated, releasing hazardous chemicals and heavy metals into groundwater, soils, and air.

The risks are increasing because e-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste in the de­veloped world. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), although e-waste accounts for less than ten percent of America’s solid waste, it is growing two to three times faster than any other waste stream. E-waste contributes approximately 40 percent of the lead, 70 percent of the heavy metals, and a significant portion of the organic pollutants to the country’s dumps.  The National Recycling Coali­tion estimates that 500 million computers are headed to landfills or incinerators by 2007.4 Approximately three-quarters of all computers ever sold in this coun­try still await disposal in garages and storage facili­ties. Europe and Japan have experienced similar growth of e-waste.5

The environmental and health cost of e-waste can be seen as a problem of “code.” Legal scholar Lawrence Lessig coined this term to refer both to the design of computer architecture (software, hardware, and systems) and relevant codes of tech­nology law, policy, and ethics.6 The term draws at­tention to how technology designers as much as policy makers can effectively “legislate” social and public goods––in this case, the environmental and health ef­fects of electronics.

In the past, electronics design has legislated against safe and efficient reuse and recycling. The com­puter industry, for example, has been driven by a busi­ness model that allocates more computing power and software features than most users need to a desktop PC and aims to replace the entire machine on three-year cycles. Designers did not aim for ease of reuse or cost-efficient disassembly and materials reclamation. In addition, the industry’s rapid product development cycles offer little incentive to pause and consider how the computer might be redesigned to use fewer toxics. The software industry has raised its own barriers to cost-effective reuse, especially Microsoft’s licensing policy for the Windows operating system, which out­laws the sale or transfer of the software to secondary buyers or recipients of a PC, requiring them to pur­chase and install a new operating system before using a second-hand computer.  As a result of these factors, only about fourteen percent of obsolete computers were recycled or donated in 1999.7

Legal and regulatory code also has contributed to the problem. In the United States, cities and coun­ties have been held responsible for handling e-waste, yet they have no ability to influence industry to reduce the flow of waste or improve product design. Local governments, and their taxpayers, face mounting haz­ardous waste bills for handling this detritus––as much as $1 billion in California alone between 2001 and 2006.8 Meanwhile, policy has offered producers little incentive to design for cheap disassembly, invest in a recycling infrastructure, and develop markets for re­cycled content. Because electronics materials are so difficult to separate, labor costs are significant for recy­clers. Domestic recycling operations have increasingly turned to cheap prison laborers, who work outside the protection of occupational safety and health regulations and public scrutiny.

Indeed, American hazardous waste regulations have raised barriers to domestic recycling while easing the export of scrap electronics.  Until recently, the EPA imposed overly burdensome record keeping require­ments and transportation restrictions on waste haulers and recyclers who aimed to collect and recycle elec­tronics at home. At the same time, the EPA failed to extend to e-waste its export requirements for other types of hazardous waste, such as demonstrating prior consent of the receiving country. Thus, our code has created an international trade in e-waste that mirrors the least attractive dynamics of global production. Approximately fifty to eighty percent of e-waste sent to U.S. recyclers is eventually exported to Asia, where lower labor costs and weaker environmental regula­tions offer a cheap but exploitive alternative to do­mestic recycling.9 This means that Chinese and In­dian villagers, among the least likely people in the world to enjoy the fruits of computer ownership, bear some of the information age’s most serious health risks. This waste trade is possible because the U.S. is the only developed nation not to have ratified the 1989 Basel Convention banning most exports of hazard­ous waste from developed to developing countries.

The Chinese village of Guiyu, one destina­tion for America’s e-waste, offers an example of the current code’s effects.  In less than a decade, the in­flux of e-waste has transformed what was a rice-grow-ing and fishing village into a hotbed of computer scrap­ping. Workers wearing no protective clothing smash open lead-laden computer monitors with hammers and burn PVC-wrapped wires to get at the metals inside. Local waterways are choked with discarded circuit boards. Rivers and groundwater have become too con­taminated with heavy metals to drink or fish in safety, rates of childhood leukemia have increased, many villagers complain of respiratory problems and pneumonia, and some women working in the recy­cling industry report giving birth to babies with pitch-black skin.10

Rewriting the Code Backwards

The notion of code suggests that influencing nominally private decisions about product design and disposal is increasingly the key lever for improving the technology industry’s environmental performance.  The European Union (E.U.) has forged the most compre­hensive solution with two directives that rewrite legal code in ways that should move manufacturers to de­sign greener electronics. The first directive, adopted in 2002, requires producers to take physical or finan­cial responsibility for their products from cradle to grave. By 2005, companies will either have to take back electronics from consumers or fund an indepen­dent collection and recycling system. An average of 4 kilos of e-waste per inhabitant must be collected an­nually by the following year.  E-waste created before enactment of the directive will become the responsi­bility of each existing manufacturer in proportion to their market share. Future waste will be the responsi­bility of each producer, creating an incentive to rede­sign for easier and safer recycling and disposal. E-waste will be barred from municipal waste streams. The public will be permitted to return old electronics free of charge. The second directive phases out the use of the most toxic materials––including mercury, cadmium, lead, hexavalent chromium, and brominated flame retardants––by 2006.

The E.U.’s approach offers producers reason­able flexibility, avoiding the dangers of command-and-control regulations that stipulate a single technologi­cal fix or recycling scheme. Instead of trying to micromanage an industry in constant flux, the E.U. has set clear goals for the amount of waste that must be recycled and allowed industry to “pay or play” to meet them. Mindful that law can stifle the develop­ment of technology, and rarely catches up with it, the

E.U. is leaving room for technologists to innovate intheir own ways as they work to catch up with the law. At the same time, by making take-back mandatory, this approach offers a level playing field with no room for free riders to outcompete responsible producers that are investing in research and development of the recycling infrastructure.

Nonetheless, most U.S.-based electronics manufacturers, their trade associations, and the U.S. Trade Representative opposed the E.U. directives as trade barriers, arguing that American exporters should not have to abide by stricter regulations than those at home. But because Europe has now set a higher envi­ronmental standard, and because Asian countries led by Taiwan and Japan are following suit, U.S. manu­facturers may find it makes little economic and public relations sense to produce a dirtier version of their products for the domestic market. A coalition of en­vironmental, health, labor, recycling groups, and lo­cal governments has already formed to support take-back legislation in the U.S. Hewlett-Packard and Apple have broken ranks to say that they will not oppose a bill in the California legislature that would establish an upfront fee on computer monitors to fund recy­cling. The state of California and a coalition of other western states are drafting government procurement guidelines for electronics that include take-back pro­visions and other environmental criteria.11

Encoding Environmental Benefits

E-waste take-back laws offer a number of advantages for environmental regulation in the glo­bal economy.12 First, EPR corrects market failures of pricing and information, making prices more honestly reflect products’ true global life-cycle costs. The E.U. is internalizing the price of waste in manufacturers’ bottom lines. In turn, producers are likely to pass end-of-life costs on to buyers, ensuring that prices send more accurate messages about the full social and en­vironmental toll of our purchases worldwide. At present, much of the economic costs are being silently shifted to taxpayers and much of the environmental costs are being dumped on Asian villagers burdened by U.S. e-waste exports. Over time, as hazardous ma­terials are phased out and a recycling infrastructure takes root, EPR should lower the environmental costs of electronics.

Second, it is more effective and fair to hold producers responsible for waste than local govern­ments, which have little control over whether prod­ucts are designed for easy recycling, or whether any­one will buy reused materials. Only brand name manufacturers like Dell and Sony have the leverage to reshape product design by influencing the entire chain of production, through purchase of raw ma-tronics manufacturers.15 In short, the spread of EPR terials and setting specifications for subcontracted has depended on the efforts of a mix of self-reinforc-components. These producers can demand safer raw materials and recycled content from subcontractors. Manufacturers can also make recycling safer, whether they take back their own e-waste (Hewlett-Packard and IBM have led the way in doing so in the U.S.), or through contract requirements with independent re­cyclers.

Third, the E.U. approach spreads environ­mental benefits globally rather than shifting risk to developing nations. In the past, stricter laws in devel­oped nations aimed at reducing pollution at the point of production have spurred the transfer of hazardous manufacturing to countries with lower workplace and emission standards. The benefits of EPR––reduced use of toxics in production, responsible waste collection systems, easier and safer materials separation in recy­cling and disposal––will be felt at each step in the prod­uct life-cycle, wherever it occurs.

Fourth, EPR entails a kind of reverse engi­neering of globalization’s dangers.  Many have argued that the intense competition of increased global trade exerts downward pressure on environmental and la­bor safeguards, especially in less developed countries that become the world’s pollution drains.  As one exposé of the e-waste trade puts it: “Market forces, if left unregulated, dictate that toxic waste will always run ‘downhill’ on an economic path of least resis-tance.”13 But globalization can also require multina­tional companies and their suppliers to observe stricter environmental norms when access to major markets is contingent on doing so. By raising standards across Europe, the E.U. is helping to converge global design and disposal practices upward, bringing along not only less developed countries such as China, but also the U.S.


Perhaps the most important lesson of e-waste legislation is that reports of the death of local and national governments at the hands of globalization are premature. Consider the strange career of take-back policy.  Since Germany pioneered the approach in a 1991 packaging law, it has spread across Europe and some Asian countries and been applied to numer­ous other products.14  Eleven European countries adopted take-back laws for electronics, thereby build­ing momentum for the E.U. directives, which were in­tended in part to harmonize these disparate national waste regimes as well as to extend EPR to all member states. The idea has since crossed the Atlantic, where it is bubbling up from cities and counties and result­ing in a flurry of proposed legislation at the state level. In 2002, twenty states introduced bills to address e-waste. As a result of this pressure, the EPA is attempt­ing to broker a national, voluntary plan with elec­ing local, national and supranational forces, each of them crucial to the policy’s success.

By establishing a new form of corporate re­sponsibility for end-of-life products, the EPR could have significant effects on the information technol­ogy industry. Although this approach does not di­rectly mandate reduced overall levels of consumption, by internalizing disposal costs it may push the indus­try to rethink a resource-intensive business model based on rapid obsolescence of the entire machine. It may spur a virtuous cycle of competition and innova­tion as manufacturers vie to reduce their costs through redesign, employing more renewable and recycled re­sources. Leasing and refurbishing machines could be­come more attractive, offering increased opportuni­ties for relationship marketing. Some producers might increase their commitment to network computing, in which software and processing power reside on serv­ers, and desktop units need replacing less often. Ad­vertising could emphasize a new kind of hardheaded environmental conscience––imagine Personal Com­puter ads that listed specifications not only for the speed and power of their brand, but their use of re­cycled content and nontoxic materials. Production plants could move closer to sources of recycled con­tent, either slowing the flow of manufacturing out of the developed world or creating new recycling infra­structure near existing assembly plants worldwide. Re­cycling technology and processes could become lucra­tive intellectual property, generating new revenues if licensed to others. Of course, there are plenty of rea­sons to doubt that any one of these changes will come to pass, but there is also a world of opportunity.  Who will be the Bill Gates of the greening of information technology? •

End Notes

1 Portions of this article draw on Ted Smith and Chad Raphael. “High Tech Goes Green.” Yes! A Journal of Positive Future (Spring 2003), 28-30.

2 Donella H. Meadows. “The Secret Life of My Computer.” The Global Citizen (1997). computer.htm.

3 Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Just Say No to E-Waste: Background Document on Hazards and Waste from Computers


4 National Recycling Coalition. Trends in Electronics Recycling in the United States (1999). electronics/trends.htm All other statistics in this paragraph are from Environmental Protection Agency, Region IX. Solid Waste, Computers and Electronics (2002).

5 Catherine K. Lin, Linan Yan, Andrew N. Davis. “Globaliza­tion, Extended Producer Responsibility and the Problem of Dis­carded Computers in China: An Exploratory Proposal for Envi­ronmental Protection.” Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, 14 (2002), 531.

6 Lawrence Lessig. Code: and Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

7 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 2. Life Cycle of Old Computers (2002). problem.htm.

8 Michael J. Coren. “Recycling Urged for California Computer Boom’s Toxic Trash.” San Diego Union-Tribune (July 8, 2001), A6.

9 Basel Action Network and Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia (2002), 1.

10 Ibid., 15-16.

11 For the draft California guidelines, see California Integrated Waste Management Board. Guidelines for the Procurement, Use, and End-of-Life Management of Electronic Equipment (2002). default.htm.

12 The discussion of benefits in this section is indebted to James Salzman. “Sustainable Consumption and the Law.” Environmental Law, 27 (1997), 1243-1293.

13 Basel Action Network, 2. See also William Greider. One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism

(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997).

14See Salzman, 1274-1277, and Amy Halpert. “Germany’s Solid Waste Disposal System: Shifting the Responsibility.” Georgetown International Environmental Law Review, 14 (2001), 135-160.

15 This reflects the different tack taken by U.S. regulators, who have embraced “Extended Product Responsibility,” emphasiz­ing shared responsibility for products by all actors in its lifecycle, including consumers and government. See President’s Council on Sustainable Development. Sustainable America: A New Consensus For Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment for the Future (Washington, DC: U.S. GPO, 1997).

About the Author

Chad Raphael

Chad Raphael

Chad Raphael is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University. With the Materials for the Future Foundation, he co-organized and facilitated a series of stakeholder meetings on solutions to the e-waste problem in 2000-2001 that were sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, Region IX and the Califor­nia Integrated Waste Management Board. He is a former board chair and trustee of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, a national envi­ronmental foundation, and a current board member of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a nonprofit environ­mental organization that works to im­prove the environmental perfor­mance of the high technology indus­try. He has served as a consultant on communication issues to several environmental organizations. Pro­fessor Raphael has published on the social and economic impacts of in­formation technology, as well as media policy. He is a graduate of Harvard University (B.A., 1989) and Northwestern University (Ph.D., 1997).

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