Electronic waste is piling up. Here’s why you should care

In this photo taken Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, workers unload and sort through a container full of electronic waste that was collected from a Nairobi slum and brought in for recycling, at the East African Compliant Recycling facility in Machakos, near Nairobi, in Kenya.

Be honest: How many old cell phones do you have in a drawer somewhere? What about computer keyboards or screens?

That waste — the leftover keyboards that we cart out to the curb, old computer screens, cell phones, audio equipment, printers — it’s all considered electronic waste, or e-waste. Its prevalence, in a society that clamours for smaller, better, faster, newer, is piling up. And there are consequences.

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How much e-waste is out there?

According to the United Nations, 41.8 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated around the globe in 2014. Of that enormous number, 725 metric tonnes were generated by Canadians.

This includes 12.8 million tonnes of small equipment like vacuum cleaners, microwaves and toasters; 11.8 million tonnes of large equipment like washing machines and dishwashers; 6.3 million screens and 3 million tonnes of small information and communication technology.

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But those numbers are anything but concrete: the United Nations estimates that number based on the amount of materials and electronics put on the market each year and their average lifespan. So that doesn’t exactly produce a concrete number: it could be higher, it could be lower.

People line up outside the Apple Store at the Eaton Centre in Toronto. The clamour to get the newest in technology leads to more electronic waste being produced annually. Peter Kim / Global News

But either way, you only need to look at your own habits to see how much e-waste you generate yourself. And the effects on our environment are noticeable.

Where it ends up

There was a time when a lot of our e-waste headed to Africa. In 1998, several African nations passed the Bamako Convention, which prohibited the import into Africa of any hazardous waste.

Computer and electronics fall under the convention. Still, many western countries will donate old electronics, which most certainly meet their demise on the continent, meaning that much e-waste once again ends up clogging the region.

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Then there’s the Basel Convention. This treaty, put into force in May 1992, was designed to reduce the transport of hazardous waste — once again, including e-waste — into other countries. Canada is a participant.

But now there’s a new taker for all that electronic waste: China.

In 2014, the International Solid Waste Association reported that China is the leading importer for waste plastics at a whopping 56 per cent.

According to the 2014 report, “The Global e-Waste Monitor,” published by United Nations University, Guiyu, China, is considered to be an “environmental catastrophe.”

That’s because China — a leading importer of electronic waste — is dismantling old computers and phones. And it’s using dangerous methods, primarily low-temperature burning. This, in turn releases dangerous toxins into the atmosphere.

“A number of studies show widespread contamination of the surrounding areas because some of the plastics are burned. If the plastic around copper wiring is burned it produces dioxins,” said Miriam Diamond, professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Earth Sciences.

Workers dismantle electronics in Guiyu Township in Shantou City. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images


The problem with charting e-waste is that there are no real solid numbers.

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In Canada, we have two ways of dealing with e-waste: there is an extended producer responsibility (EPR) and a product stewardship program (PSP). For EPR, funding for end-of-life disposal of electronics is funded by the manufacturers themselves.

For product stewardship, legislated environmental fees or public funds are used, depending on the province. But ultimately, the responsibility lies with the provinces and the provinces hand it off to private companies.

So those pesky “handling fees” we tend to scoff at when we purchase electronics (at least in some provinces, like Ontario and B.C.)? While many may think of that fee as being nothing more than a cash-grab similar to the frustrating handling fees on entertainment tickets purchased online, that fee is part of the PSP. Which means the consumer is paying for the recycling of their electronics.

There are organizations across the country that take in used electronics for recycling.

Cliff Hacking, president and chief executive officer of the Electronics Products Recycling Association (EPRA), which operates recycling programs in eight of the 10 provinces with legislation on e-waste, said that his non-profit organization recycled 100,000 metric tonnes of electronics in 2014, which translates to about 15.5 million devices.

But, he concedes, “It is a lot and there’s even more out there.”

Discarded keyboards are piled up in a waiting area in Guiyu, China. AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel

“Everyone wants the newest and the greatest, and that means there’s a lot out there and we went to make sure that it gets recycled properly.”

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For Josh Lepawsky, associate professor of geography at Memorial University who has been mapping global flows of e-waste for years, it’s not just about the e-waste generated, but the impact on the environment in general.

“I think it is a problem to see recycling as a solution to e-waste,” he said.

“The reason I say that recycling post-consumer electronics will never solve the generation of e-waste of electronics is because most waste is generated before it even gets to consumers.”

You only need to turn to Apple to see the environmental impact. Each year, the undeniable king of tech produces a report entitled the “Environmental Responsibility Report.” In 2013, Apple produced 33,800,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions. For 2014, that number increased to 34,200,000 metric tons of CO2.

That’s not to say that Apple is doing a poor job of managing its emissions, but it does illustrate that a growing demand of consumer electronics impacts the environment long before that cell phone or tablet lands in our hands.

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“When the discussion comes down to e-waste, post-consumer, that’s a problem because it leaves out the most important generation of waste,” Lepawsky said. “Look at a desktop computer: 80 per cent of energy use takes place before it’s even used.”

The future

Lepawsky would like to see responsibility of e-waste similar to that of the pharmaceutical industry or automotive industry in the U.S. and Canada. “The very fact that we have a regulatory [framework] for a multi-billion dollar industry tells me we could do it in electronics.”

Hacking said he wants the consumer to be more aware.

“Consumer awareness is very important…it helps to create an awareness that there is another life for this product, that you just can’t throw them into the trash and have them end up in a landfill,” he said. “There are some substances of concern, there is lead in batteries that can leach…mercury is present in some products, so all of that is part of the awareness.”

Diamond is concerned about what the future holds.

“I see this as an issue that’s going to come back to haunt us,” said Diamond. “We’re drowning in e-waste, which has a large environmental burden. It’s just unsustainable.”


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