Is profit the only driver to recycling e-waste?

Experts say no, as product stewardship plays into the equation

Recycling of e-waste has been a hot topic in the IT industry for many years, but questions have always been raised whether recycling will happen if there is no profit involved.

The problem two decades ago with paper was that companies would not buy recycled paper because it was cheaper to buy pulp from the mill, leading to warehouses being full of unused paper.

James Bradfield Moody, author of the book The Sixth Wave, admits that in many cases it is cheaper for companies to buy the raw product than do the recycling, but this mindset is no longer sustainable.

“There are mega trends in effect around resource efficiency, and scarcity will be the focus of the next 30 years,” he said.

“Ultimately, the recovery option will become more efficient than the notion that it will be cheaper to dig it out of the ground.”

That being said, Moody concedes that the profit motive is a strong one, but adds that it is not the only one.

For one, there are institutional, legal and behavioural mechanisms that can also influence behaviour.

To illustrate his point, Moody points to the overall shift to public transport, where car ownership in the US hit a peak last year and started to go down.

“The reason for that is not because cars are more expensive, but people decided that they did not want to waste their time driving a car,” he said.

“There are lots of other things they could be doing while sitting in a bus, such as tweeting.”

Issues such as whether people can afford the petrol remain, but Moody said the biggest factor for people to prefer to use public transport is the other things they could be doing instead of driving a car.

“The more profit motives you can find, the more institutional mechanisms you can get to line up the better,” he said.

“There are these other levers that can be potentially be pulled, and some of them are quite effective.”

Undertaking stewardship

Product stewardship regulator section assistant director, Michael McGee, said that the Product Stewardship Act, which came into action in August 2011, is designed to aid with this.

“Product stewardship recognises that industry should cover the costs towards recycling where it is not cost effective in itself,” he said.

McGee admits that the scheme is very expensive for the industry, but it is one approach in terms of ensuring recycling takes places where profit is not the major driver.

“If the product is valuable enough to be recycled, you may not need a product stewardship program in the same way,” he said.

Patrick Budmar covers consumer and enterprise technology breaking news for IDG Communications. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @patrick_budmar.

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