Monday, May 11, 2009

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Question for the environmentalists: are the greenhouse gases emitted by your idling internal combustion engine somehow mitigated by the fact that they were emitted in an effort to help the planet?

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Saturday’s e-waste recycling event must have pushed the greenhouse gas emission meter off the scale in Madison, when thousands and thousands of cars were idling for hours and hours as people tried to drop off their old TV sets and computers to be responsibly recycled.

The well-intentioned folks who put the event together never anticipated such a response, but then they apparently forgot that just a few weeks ago, thousands of TV sets suddenly became essentially useless when the broadcasters converted from analog to digital transmission.

We got briefly stuck in the traffic mess coming from our south suburban home headed to the beltline along Rimrock Road, to do the weekly grocery shopping about 9 o’clock Saturday morning. Only my superior knowledge of the local layout enabled us to disengage from the mess by taking a secret path to the beltline to avoid adding to the exhaust fumes blanketing the south side.

As far as the eye could see, along Rimrock, John Nolen, Olin, Lakeview, and scores of other south-side thoroughfares, it was bumper-to-bumper, moving forward ten feet at a time, then idling again for another 30 or 40 seconds. The backups on the beltline were phenomenal. Fifteen cops dispatched to the scene did their best to try and “control” traffic, but there’s not much you can do when the lines were already several miles long before the event even started.

I’m glad that so many folks in Dane County take disposing of e-waste seriously, and had the best intentions of doing the right thing. Some of the stuff in those old TV’s and computers is pretty nasty, and we really need to keep it out of the landfills, lakes, and groundwater. And the fact that the organizers were taking the e-waste at no charge made Saturday’s event a very attractive one, indeed.

Best guess is that about 250 tons of e-waste….that’s about 35 semi-trailers’ worth…was collected Saturday and will be responsibly recycled. That’s a very good thing. I’m sure next time, and there should be a next time, the organizers will let the cops know well in advance that there may be a “traffic situation”.

Saturday’s huge greenhouse gas emission was the unfortunate price we paid as good citizens of the earth. Next time, we’ll be even better citizens. We’ll plan for better traffic flow.


  1. Interesting that the PRM doesn't have that service already ongoing at its landfill sites. Little ol' Neenah has a place at the city garage where e-waste can be dropped off. Some local outfit comes and takes it away to scrape the gold off of the electrical contacts and what-not. I disposed of three or four old PCs in that way within the past few months. Why Mad-town doesn't have something similar is puzzling.

    Steve Erbach

  2. This sort of thing never happens in New York City. The technique here is to place the defunct electronics in a large, opaque black bag and set it out for the Sanitation Department truck. They use a sort of Don't ask - Don't tell policy. If you skip the bag and just set the TV or computer or what have you out on the curb, they'll either ignore it or write you a ticket. The bag takes care of that. Works for paint and solvents and asbestos and (we're led to believe) the occasional mobster ... and all manner of other hard-to-get-rid-of stuff.

  3. I suspect that's why folks who live in Adams County have to put their trash in clear plastic bags (so they can't dispose of any bodies).