The Economics of E-Waste and the Cost to the Environment

    November 2015

    ABA Natural Resources & Environment Magazine
    Fall 2015

    E-waste or waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) has been generally defined as anything with a cord or battery. See Balde, C.P. Wang, F. Kuehr, R., Huisman, J., The Global E-waste Monitor 2014, Quantities, Flows and Resources, United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) (2014) (Balade). Because products with cords and batteries have been around since at least the nineteenth century, managing the waste stream for those products at the end of their useful life is not a new problem. What is relatively new is the perception of WEEE not just as waste, but instead as a valuable resource that can be managed through reuse of the electronic device itself (reuse), recycling of its components (recycling), or disposal of the device or its components (disposal). 

    Recognition of WEEE as a resource has led to a paradigm shift in WEEE management. Historically, management of WEEE simply involved choices between disposal options. That outlook has given way to a focus on recycling and reuse, with disposal becoming much less prevalent. This change has been attributed to a host of concerns – commercial, societal, and environmental. In modern view, a successful approach to the management of WEEE seeks to achieve economic efficiency while minimizing impacts to the environment. Regardless of the perspective taken on WEEE, there can be no denying that economics are the leading policy driver. But societal or environmental concerns do not take the back seat. Acceptable WEEE management is seen as requiring harmonizing of commercial, societal, and environmental interests equally.