This article originally appeared in Doublethink Magazine
Sometimes, when presented with a global problem, humanity comes together in a beautiful way to deal with the challenge while benefiting all. Other times, government regulation prevents the problem from being solved. This is a story of the latter.
Technology has advanced at a furious pace over the past several decades, rendering electronics obsolete after just a few years. The panicked frenzy to keep up with the latest technological advancements has produced a unique and challenging consideration: recycling. As electronic equipment that was once top-of-the line is discarded in favor of the latest and greatest, all that outdated hardware has to end up somewhere. Every environmentalist’s worst nightmare is gargantuan heaps of electronic waste ending up in landfills, sickening the planet as the piles grow higher everyday.
Enter the market. A scrappy group of eco-friendly entrepreneurs has risen to the challenge of handling discarded electronics without causing an ecological disaster. One such individual is Robin Ingenthron, whose Vermont-based company Good Point Recycling tackles the e-waste problem by collecting used electronics and ensuring that they are either refurbished or responsibly recycled. Ingenthron and his kind have found a way to simultaneously deal with this environmental problem and create jobs.
All this good, clean, environmentally-friendly fun does hit one small snag: Cathode Ray Tube, or CRT, monitors and televisions. This piece of technology has the nasty combination of being both outdated and notoriously difficult to recycle on account of the leaded glass it leaves behind. The difficulty of disposing of CRTs is only amplified by the popular demand to get rid of them, with flat-screen TVs and monitors taking their place. A few intrepid recyclers have developed means of removing the lead from CRT glass so that it may be recycled properly, but they are few and far between.
Not a problem. Recyclers such as Good Point have found a solution to lessen the burden of recycling all that leaded glass: reselling to third-world countries. While CRT TVs have reached an end to their usefulness, CRT computer monitors still see action in less developed areas of the world where many people do not even own computers.
Unwanted consumer electronics disposed of in an environmentally-responsible, profitable manner, all while creating jobs and serving the less-fortunate in the third-world. Sound too good to be true? Fear not: the government is here to help.
Fueled by a glut of sensationalized, misleading photos of electronic waste, legislation hindering the selling of CRT monitors begins to spring up, to the eternal frustration of responsible recyclers like Robin Ingenthron. According to Ingenthron, “Americans replace small CRT computer monitors, find millions of buyers. They begin to replace big 27″ CRT televisions, no buyers, waste problem.” A waste problem which was previously workable, given the ability to sell CRT monitors to ease the burden on glass recyclers. Unfortunately, as Ingenthron laments, “California passes ‘CRT law’ making BOTH the computer monitors (which free market wanted) and TVs (which free market wouldn’t take for free) into government management.”
Now, what was once a situation handily under control by the free market has now become an ecological nightmare. The excess lead-contaminated glass, too much for recyclers to handle responsibly, now either ends up in landfills or is simply abandoned in warehouses. All because of a bad law ushered into existence as a result of a few frightening photographs.
Laws have consequences, and bad laws have bad consequences. The free market found a way to dispose of CRT monitors and televisions, safely and at a profit, until the government got involved. Now, environmental regulations meant to keep CRT glass out of landfills have ended up doing just that.