How Green Is the Valley of Recycled Energy-Inefficient Appliances?
The State of Missouri recently announced that it would offer an extra $50 in rebates to consumers who participate in the Energize Missouri Appliance Rebate Program. The additional money comes as an incentive to help participants in paying the cost of recycling their old appliances.
But just what are the costs of recycling these appliances? Missouri’s State Energy Efficient Appliance Rebate program (SEEARP) is explicitly restricted to the replacement of existing appliances. Further, there are essentially no qualifications on eligibility for replacing older appliances.
Thus, a couple looking to buy necessary appliances for their new home are not given the government incentive to purchase energy efficient appliances, but homeowners with already functioning appliances are.
What happens to the old appliances? In order to qualify for the rebate, consumers must show proof that the appliance was “properly recycled.” Recycling appliances, however, is tricky business. Most of the materials aren’t biodegradable, so the appliances have to be broken down into their parts and either sold as scrap or, in the case of metals, reprocessed altogether. How much more earth-friendly could this process be compared to simply repairing and using an existing appliance for as long as possible? Further, for the appliance to be recycled, its parts need to be in a minimally workable condition in order to be repurposed. Otherwise, the scrap ends up in a landfill. On the other hand, if the appliance could be repaired, why would anyone replace it? Answer: because you can get a government discount on a new one.
Not only does the SEEARP program then distort the market, it incentivizes consumers, who by and large have no real need for new appliances, to wastefully and expensively toss workable ones. Supporters of initiatives like the rebate initiative may argue that the continued use of such appliances generates a negative environmental impact. While that might perhaps be marginally true, there remain serious environmental, and economic, problems with this argument. For one, the process of recycling old, functioning appliances itself requires a great deal of energy. Further, energy-efficient appliances may even encourage individuals to consume more energy overall. Incentivizing the disposal of viable machinery also misallocates resources that could have been spent on encouraging growth in other areas of the economy. Remember: The rebate program does not simply encourage people to buy energy-efficient appliances, but to replace their old — functioning or not — appliances.
Additionally, in order to qualify for the rebate, consumers are limited to select Missouri retailers. This might not be cost effective for the consumer, who, for instance, could potentially find a better deal online — and it’s certainly not cost effective for Missouri.
Because the rebate program only applies to recycling an appliance, consumers are further disincentivized from selling, or donating, these appliances to others who might need them. Those who actually need to purchase appliances, either new or used, are therefore harmed by the program, both because workable, used appliances would need to be recycled, rather than sold or donated, by owners replacing them with energy efficient appliances, and because those who want to purchase a new appliance do not qualify for the rebate.
The truly green solution is to let consumers decide without government prodding when, and how, to replace their appliances.