The business of waste

I made a rational economic decision yesterday and purchased a new printer even though my existing printer is working perfectly. My reasoning was based on a comparison of the cost of replacement laser cartridges with the purchase price of a new, upgraded and wireless version of my present printer. The result was clear; even purchasing non-branded replacement cartridges was significantly more expensive than buying the new printer – in fact 75% more expensive. Branded cartridge replacements cost more than double that of the new printer. I will now either try to sell my older printer (probably impossible) or take it to the refuse dump. I am deeply troubled by my decision – it’s environmentally irresponsible – but little different to many other consumption decisions I make on a daily basis. However, I believe that I should not be pressured to make such decisions in the first place and that consumers should be protected from commercial exploitation – especially in the electronics industry.

My situation is a logical response to the marketing decisions made by companies to charge a low initial price for a product, but to then maximise revenues by loading the price of accessories, components and software. Accessories for mobile phones, for example, are frequently proprietary and even worse may differ between firm’s own models. The latest iPhone, for example, will not connect with docking stations purchased for older versions and the charging unit is different. The message is clear – buy more, and throw away ‘obsolete’ versions.

As local and national governments struggle to deal with ever-growing piles of electronic waste (or “e-waste”), a research study published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, found that nearly a quarter of e-waste that developed countries discard, floods into just seven developing countries — with major potential health risks for the people who live there.  On one hand, this practice can help people in resource-poor countries acquire technology or earn income from selling re-usable parts and raw materials from the waste, but on the other, environmental regulations and enforcement in developing countries are often too weak to protect local people and their environment from the waste’s toxins, including lead and mercury, which are known to make people sick.  They estimated that in 2005, more than 38 million tons of used electronics were discarded worldwide and predicted that e-waste will top 72 million tons by 2017. Nearly a quarter of the waste from developed nations went to China, India and five West African countries: Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin and Liberia.

Either firms should voluntarily honour their corporate responsibilities to the societies in which they operate, or national governments or international bodies should prevent loss-leading on price that leads to unacceptable waste and resource misallocation. However, environmental regulation does not always have the desired effects. Under EU energy-saving regulations that came into force at the end of August, companies in the EU have been banned from making or importing vacuum cleaners above 1600 watts. Reports from electrical goods stores suggested that sales of high-powered vacuum cleaners had actually risen in August ahead of the change.

 

Sources

ACS Chemistry for Life

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