The Cost of a Patchwork Quilt of Legislation

I’ve always thought that one of the most interesting and powerful aspects of the US system of government is that individual states can act as test beds for emerging areas of legislation. This is especially important to high tech, where rapid change creates new legal opportunities and issues on a regular basis. As the understanding of the new area occurs, states can enact legislation which explores the space of possible responses. At some appropriate point the federal government can then pick from the ‘winners’ and enact a consistent federal approach.

The problem is that this system can break down, and when it does it can be a big mess for businesses. That’s the case with eWaste (i.e. the trash from end-of-life electronics), where there is a wide range of state and even local legislation springing up. Last week the WSJ documented the situation, with a good summary by Environmental Leader.

The article highlights two problems: 1) the cost of mandatory takeback and recycling, and 2) the cost of the disparate and inconsistent laws. In my case I actually think that mandatory takeback and recycling is the right answer (with appropriate details), but as I’ve regularly argued in DC, at some point the cost of inconsistent state and local laws far outweighs the benefits of having a mixture. And in the case of eWaste, where a reasonable and consistent regulation already exists in the EU, there’s no excuse for not addressing this at a federal level today in the US.

Why is this important? The big reason is that it is a drain on innovation in this country, especially innovation driven by startups and small companies. Imagine being a small electronics company and having to deal with 50+ takeback and recycling laws and processes. We’re feeling the pinch of the administrative overhead here at Sun - I can only imagine what it feels like at a smaller company.

I know that eWaste legislation isn’t as appealing as GHG reductions right now, but the states aren’t slowing down. So next week when I’m in DC I’m going to keep up my pitch: please pass reasonable federal eWaste legislation!