Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Paying for Junk
distributed 2/22/02 - ©2002

Fifteen years ago, Tom was showing me his latest toy -- an early cell phone. It was big, clunky, had a very limited area, and was clearly an expensive gadget. Knowing that he didn't earn a lot, I asked how he could afford such a thing.

He replied, "I can do it if I don't pay child support." He seemed genuinely surprised that I found such a suggestion objectionable.

I talked to him about moral obligation and legal responsibility to his ex-wife and children. He told me that, if he wasn't spending time with his kids, he didn't see why he should be sending them money.

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Tom popped back into my thoughts a few months ago during a church meeting.

A denominational board of directors was debating what to do with their church camp facilities. The camp had been developed on property leased from the Forest Service. The lease had expired, and the camp had closed, but the buildings remained. The presence of asbestos and other dangerous substances presented lingering problems.

The directors faced a choice. They could abandon the facility, and leave the cleanup problems to the Forest Service. Or they could spend lots of money to properly restore the site. (There were whispered suggestions about mysterious fires ...)

After a long and difficult discussion that probed the possible uses for scarce mission dollars, the board decided to spend $60,000 on a complex remediation project. It was a significant amount of money to commit to a site that the church members would never use again.

Tom would not have understood the vote. I was proud of the board's principled decision.

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Most of us are not encountering situations where we face cleanup costs in the tens of thousands of dollars. But almost all of us do face a similar problem on a regular basis.

Like Tom, and like the board, we have helped to create something that we'll no longer enjoy. Will we admit to our responsibility to deal with what we have made? Will we pay the costs, even when we don't seem to benefit from that expense?

There is a dramatic example. Every year in the US, over 15 million computer systems are retired as obsolete, and many of those are sent to the dump. By government standards, though, computers qualify as hazardous waste. A monitor contains around 5 pounds of lead, and a mix of other toxic materials. The other components also contain nasty stuff like lead and mercury. Businesses with large numbers of computers are required to dispose of their old computers through appropriate means. Small businesses and individuals are rarely held to those legal standards. (California will not allow any computer monitors in its landfills, whether from business or individuals.)

So, you (or your church) just upgraded to a new computer system. Or you bought a new monitor to ease your tired eyes. What will you do with the old clunker?

Do you take Tom's approach? You're done with it. You will get no more use out of the old thing. Why should you spend good money on it now? Throw it in the dumpster.

Or do you take the board's approach? Having bought the thing in the first place, there is now an obligation to see it through. Even though the disposal costs may not have been thought about or known when you got it, they are a reality now. Pay up to have the thing dismantled and recycled.

It is hard to spend the money (and go through the hassles) that are needed for proper disposal. But it is the right thing to do.

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Part of the problem in dealing with waste like old computers is that all of the costs and responsibilities are loaded onto the end user. It falls to the owner to find safe and appropriate ways of disposing of the problematic materials.

A different strategy calls on the manufacturer to take responsibility for the eventual disposal of their products. Whether cars or computers, the producers can be required to take back and process what they have made. The idea is being implemented in some European markets, and it is gaining support in the US.

Not only does this approach relieve the consumer of hidden and unexpected costs, it provides a strong incentive for the manufacturer to reduce the hazardous content, and to make it easier to reprocess and recycle components.

Churches can provide important leadership in their communities by working for, and modeling, the proper handling of hazardous waste.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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