1. What is E-waste?
In the most general sense, it is anything that runs on electricity that the current owner wants to dispose of.
Examples include computer towers or laptops, monitors, TVs, VCRs, phones/cell phones, printers, faxes, copiers, ipods etc. Key exceptions include larger household appliances such as refrigerators, freezers, ovens, washing machines etc.
2. What does E-waste have to do with toxic chemicals?
Electronic waste contains an impressive list of hazardous chemicals. The most hazardous to human health and the environment include heavy metals and flame retardants. These can leach from E-waste into the surrounding environment causing significant damage. Flame retardants (PBDEs) if processed improperly, such as uncontrolled burning, can cause harm to the health of people exposed.
3. How much E-waste does Canada produce each year?
Recent reports suggest that Canada produces on the order of 200,000 tonnes of E-waste a year. This figure can only be estimated, and it is quite likely that there is much more. Globally there is an estimated annual quantity of 50 million tonnes, (yes, 50 million).
4. What does Canada do with its E-waste?
It really depends on what province you are in. Some, such as BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, have introduced recycling programs that divert the equipment from landfills, and also combat overseas dumping (the export of harm). Unfortunately, programs to date do little to encourage reuse of a product stream that has considerable life left in it even after it has been discarded. In existing programs, the equipment is indiscriminately dismantled or shredded. Then, it is smelted for its raw materials and sold back into the commodity market and used to produce other products.
This type of processing achieves landfill diversion, and ensures room for consumers to acquire new equipment, but does little with respect to other environmental, social, and economic objectives that are possible and desirable when it comes to reusing discarded computer and electronic equipment. Plainly there is more that we can and should do.
Examples of the added benefits of reuse (versus “just” recycling) include the training of information technology professionals. By reusing IT equipment and providing it at accessible prices, underprivileged people get access to tools which will facilitate education, job seeking, small business development etc. The outcome of conventional recycling (while necessary for less than approximately 70-80% of E-waste that is discarded) is much more limited in this regard.
Lastly, reuse, arguably, finds its greatest added impact with respect to the environment. Reuse takes the original environmental impact of mining and manufacturing a computer (including the consumption of 290Kg of greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels, the dirtying of 1,500 litres of freshwater, and the use of over 22Kg of chemicals) and spreads it across a lifespan which is approximately twice as long, reducing the computer’s environmental footprint.
5. What other issues might concern citizens and businesses about E-waste?
Privacy. Information and communication technology products are capable of storing vast quantities of personal and professional information. Just as toxic compounds must be prevented from entering the open environment, so should private information.
6. What can citizens and businesses do to help stem the E-waste problem?
First, “E-waste” should not be treated as waste at all; at the very least it should be recycled. For a variety of reasons relating to the environment, privacy, and storage space, unused electronics should also not be kept indefinitely — I’ve been called a pack rat, so I know this last part can be difficult.
Businesses and individuals with E-waste to dispose of should seek out suitable organizations that specialize in providing E-waste recycling and reuse services. Key criteria in selecting such a service would include “yes” answers to the following questions:
-Do they have a high landfill diversion rate, greater than 95%?
-Do they support and put in practice a ban on the export of non-working electronic equipment (eg. Do they NOT sell electronic scrap in AS-IS condition to overseas markets?)?
-Do they have the capacity to effectively and efficiently destroy private data on electronic media?
-Do they give priority to the 3 Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), in that order?
Secondly, those with larger quantities of E-waste or with specific corporate reporting requirements would want to know if:
-A certificate of recycling/destruction, or more detailed reports could be provided.
-The organization has the capacity to manage the logistics of receiving or collecting large quantities of E-waste.
At Computation, a company I founded in 2001, with locations in Toronto & Montreal, we put a priority on the reuse of equipment until it is no longer economically viable. We recycle for commodity materials (metals, plastics, and glass) only as a last resort after we have made all practical attempts to reuse/refurbish the equipment as working technology, remarketing it at highly accessible prices, or outright donation to local not-for-profits and charities.
Reuse preserves all of the energy, fresh water and other resources invested in producing the technology in the first place, and also requires much less energy than smelting and shredding. Each of our facilities generates less waste than a small household and so our landfill diversion rate is in the high 90th percentile. We use a variety of techniques to destroy confidential data, generally this means specialized software that overwrites entire hard disks with random values multiple times, or mechanical means such as damaging the disk beyond repair.
We host drop-off events for the public, and deal with commercial E-waste. Our commercial service is available throughout the country. To learn more about Computation’s services or for more information and articles on E-waste, please visit www.computation.to.
Dennis Maslo is the Managing Partner and Founder of Computation Ltd.
Want to know more about E-waste? You can ask Dennis by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please have the subject of your email as “E-waste Question”.
An E-Waste Primer
1. What is E-waste?