E-waste explainer

Electronics are terrible things to waste

At the Sims Recycling Solutions electronic waste recycling plant in Brampton, nothing gets thrown out.

Everything from iPods to laptops to TVs come here to die – their “carcasses” shredded to bits and sorted – before being shipped out for rebirth elsewhere.

It wouldn’t make sense to discard anything. Each little scrap is much too valuable. Even dust is like gold – containing enough metal content to be sold in the global marketplace.

Cindy Coutts, Sims’ Canadian president, remembers her days at iconic mining giant Noranda in the 1980s, as the company pioneered a new type of resource extraction – recovering valuable commodities from old electronic equipment.

That was a different era — before offices had computers on every desk, before mountains of our deadly waste had piled up across the developing world.

Now Coutts leads the Canadian division of the world’s largest e-waste recycler.

Environment Canada estimated Canadians tossed 167,000 tonnes of e-waste in 2002. But that yearly figure has already jumped by over one-third.

“Electronics today have a number of hazardous substances in them,” Coutts says. “If they’re not handled properly they can cause issues for human health and the environment.”

It’s no crime to want the newest iPhone or television, but the severity of the e-waste crisis has only increased as product life cycles diminished over the last few decades, she says.

“As a society we are much more willing to turn a blind eye and ship it overseas, because we don’t want to deal with it in an environmentally sound way here that bears a price.”

Short-term exposure to high levels of lead, found in old computer monitors and TV sets, for example, can cause vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, comas or even death, according to Health Canada. Mercury exposure can lead to neurological disorders.

As government departments struggle to reign in a wild west industry of e-waste brokers and exporters, nothing short of a global paradigm shift is in order.

After all, an October 2000 study from Environment Canada estimated that the amount of lead from discarded computers would jump from 1,355 tonnes in 1999, to 3,012 tonnes by 2005.

The Basel Action Network (BAN), an e-waste watchdog organization named after the United Nations initiative meant to stem the tide of hazardous waste – the 1989 Basel Convention, says about 80 per cent of “recycled” electronic materials in the United States is loaded into empty container ships and sent overseas to China, Vietnam, India and Pakistan.

“There’s so much money to be made doing the wrong thing here,” says Sarah Westervelt, e-Waste Project Coordinator at BAN. “It’s really crucial that consumers become educated about the issues associated with electronic waste. Almost everyone is contributing to this waste stream.”

According to figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) it can be as much as 10 times cheaper to ship waste to the developing world compared to dealing with the old electronics at home.

Westervelt says she can’t forget the environmental and human havoc she saw the current e-waste regime had wreaked on China, while touring the town of Guiyu in 2001.

She says when BAN went back to Guiyu with a 60 Minutes crew they found things were only getting worse. The report referred to the town as a “Chernobyl” of electronic waste.

“When we went in 2001 they were just burning wires,” she said. “When we went back in 2008 with 60 Minutes they were burning just about everything.”

With the popularity of artistic work by artists such as Edward Burtynsky (of Manufactured Landscapes fame), Canadians are anxious to learn how they can reduce their global impact.

Jurisdictions across the country are just now scrambling to develop end-of-life product regulations for producers, despite the fact Canada signed the Basel Convention way back in March 1989.

“Environment Canada recognizes that end-of-life electronic equipment is a growing domestic and global waste problem, and we are working both in Canada and internationally to identify practical solutions,” says Environment Canada spokesperson Sujata Raisinghani.

Environment Canada says those who create and package goods should have to pay for disposal.

The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment is leading the development of Extended Producer Responsibility programs for different products, including e-waste. But jurisdictions will have six years to develop these programs.

Enforcement is not going to be easy.

On December 20, 2006, the Environment Canada and Canada Border Services Agency announced their year long investigation into illegal e-waste shipments had paid off. A total of 50 inspections of marine containers destined for export outside of Canada, had netted 500,000 kg of metal and scrap, implicated 27 Canadian companies, and stopped thousands of computer monitors from ending up in Hong Kong and China.

The Canada Border Services Agency said the companies had to pay $50,801 under the Customs Act – less than $2,000 per company. And much of the e-waste was sent right back to the offending exporters, because Environment Canada didn’t have space to store the junk.

Some not-for-profit groups are working to develop mechanisms to promote corporate social responsibility. BAN promotes it’s “e-Stewards Initiative,” a recycling standard which allows the NGO to audit companies, for example.

And though Sims Recycling Solutions has not signed on to this particular standard, they have been in discussions on the subject.

Coutts says Sims audits every single vendor they work with, right down to the final resting place for each material.

“I think in this province we’re probably evolving through the Waste Diversion Act to a point where government will set recycling standards,” she says. “I think that’s the right way to go.”[rssbreak]


If you want to get rid of your old e-junk, just go to dowhatyoucan.ca/Electronics to find specific collection sites by material, postal code or community, including:

  • Salvation Army – Toronto Parkdale Thrift Store, 1447 Queen St. W.
  • Salvation Army – Toronto Davenport Thrift Store , 1219 Bloor St. W.
  • Ontario College of Art & Design, 100 McCaul Street, Toronto
  • Computers for Schools/Renewed Computer Technology, 6150 Kennedy Rd, Unit 2, Mississauga, 905-795-5388

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