E-waste: The effluence of affluence

The scene is set: Humans struggle to survive on an Earth — now toxic and contaminated — that is suffocating beneath the cast-off electronic and electric goods of yesteryear.

While most would consider this to be the archetypal scene of a dystopian future, some experts are saying it’s not far off from the current reality.

The United Nations Environmental Programme estimates that nearly 50 million tonnes of electronics waste (e-waste) are disposed of each year worldwide. As a result, various international agreements, treaties and conventions have been created, debated and signed in an effort to deal with the rising mountain of techno-trash.

Despite current efforts to quell the spread of e-waste, environmental advocates and academics are concerned that not enough is being done.

According to University of Toronto Prof. Douglas MacDonald, consumers (including individuals, corporations and government institutions) can do two things to help the environment: one, create cleaner and more efficient technology; and two, change their behaviour.

Technology versus behaviour

Some feel the first option — supporting technological change — allows people to keep doing the same things, while consuming fewer resources and generating less pollution.

“The push for greener technology is an effort to conserve resources of all kinds,” said MacDonald, director of environmental studies at the U of T’s Innes College, who specializes in business and environmental politics. “It’s an effort to reduce pollution that we put into the natural world.”

The second option — a change in behaviour — requires that we simply don’t do all the things we were doing before, and instead adopt more environmentally sustainable habits. In other words, reduce our impact on the planet by using up and tossing out less.

So-called “green technology” is a hot topic that’s drawing a lot of attention as concern about human impact on the environment grows. But MacDonald said the emphasis placed on developing new technology overshadows the larger, more dramatic changes that are necessary for real sustainable living in a technologically advanced world.

“Governments emphasize the first approach rather than asking people to make larger lifestyle changes,” he said.

MacDonald’s comments come in the wake of statements made by the head of the UN Environmental Programme, Achim Steiner, about the hazards of e-waste. “The world’s richest nations are dumping hazardous electronic waste on poor African countries,” and consumerism is driving a “growing mountain of e-waste,” Steiner said at the 8th Basel Convention in Nairobi late last year.

Canada’s role

In an effort to deal with the issue of e-waste, Canada ratified the first Basel Convention, an international treaty that was designed to reduce the movement of hazardous waste between nations, in 1992. Since then, the federal, provincial, and territorial environment ministers have adopted 12 principles for electronic products stewardship, said Duncan Bury, head of product policy at Environment Canada’s National Office of Pollution Prevention. These principles are meant to help communities develop electronic waste disposal programs.

Jay Illingworth, vice-president of Electronics Product Stewardship Canada (EPSC) — an industry-backed group — believes that the newly introduced provincial electronic stewardship programs are a step in the right regulatory direction. “[ESPC] information on the necessity of life-cycle initiatives even predated Environment Canada’s research. With these programs, Canada’s manufacturers are stepping up and doing the right thing,” Illingworth said.

As of last year, however, only British Columbia and Saskatchewan had implemented EPSC-inspired stewardship programs. Nova Scotia has a plan to start phasing in an e-waste stewardship program in February 2008. Alberta is the only province to include electronics in its recycling program. Yet Bury and other government representatives are optimistic that Canada is on the right track.

“Throwing these items in a landfill is cheaper [than recycling], but it does not support our environmental goals,” Bury said. “As such, in two years, by the end of 2008, the vast majority of consumers will have access to recycling for computers, televisions and other small electric and electronic appliances.”

Voluntary versus enforced programs

The fact remains, however, that provincial regulations and the way they’re enforced differ across the country. This has academics and environmentalists worried.

“The stewardship programs are voluntary and there is very good analysis of how well voluntary programs work — analysis that shows there are inherent problems,” said Miriam Diamond, a professor in the U of T’s geography and chemical engineering departments and with the Institute for Environmental Studies who specializes in pollution issues. “We don’t pay our taxes on a voluntary basis, so the question we need to ask is why should we be dealing with such a pervasive problem on a voluntary basis?”

Underlining this issue, in late December 2006, a joint investigation by federal agencies uncovered 50 shipping containers in the Vancouver port loaded with about 500,000 kilograms of metal and plastic scrap destined for China and Hong Kong. The waste included thousands of computer monitors containing pollutants such as lead, cadmium and mercury, all substances proven to be toxic. While Environment Canada enforcement officers could not precisely determine the origin of the computer waste, they believe it was from a mixture of private corporations, individuals and even government agencies, most of them located in Ontario and Quebec.

This is not a surprise to Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), an environmental advocacy organization that tracks hazardous waste. Seven years ago, it became illegal to import e-waste into China due to environmentally unsound recycling practices. Yet in 2004, BAN filmed the arrival of trucks filled with obsolete or cast-off electronic equipment, mostly from North America, Europe and Japan.

China is still receiving e-waste shipments. Typical wages for the workers who deal with it are between $2 and $4 a day. Their job is to dismantle the components of e-waste (computers, small household appliances, and cellphones) and salvage steel, aluminum, copper, plastic and gold. In the process, they are exposed to lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium, which, according to the California Waste Management Board, are “extremely poisonous” and “have been implicated as a cause of human deaths.”

Diamond, MacDonald, and Puckett say the only way to properly address the e-waste issue, both domestically and internationally, is through government regulation.

“It has been noted by numerous economists that there is a strong advantage to the regulatory approach,” Diamond said. “It pushes industry to innovate, and there is a strong relationship between countries with strong environmental regulations and countries with high technological advantage and prosperity.”

Diamond, a self-described pragmatic idealist, believes that significant changes in the management of e-waste will only occur through federal legislation.

“Purchasing power is important, and consumer demand is powerful, but it is not enough. In the end we, as a nation, need to advance our prosperity and technological advantage through legislation.”

The consumer impact

In 2003, Environment Canada released a report that said Canadians disposed of 160,000 tonnes of e-waste in the previous year. It predicted this amount would increase, if nothing was done, to 206,000 tonnes by 2010 — enough to fill 430 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Just under half of this waste comes from residential collection programs, according to Statistics Canada.

“Technology, change and how we deal with it will only occur with consumer demand,” MacDonald said.

Part of this involves making changes to the product life cycle. If consumers demand products that are more durable and that don’t have to be replaced as often, then the issue of waste is addressed from a behavioural level, MacDonald said. “Durability is part of the equation. The longer a product lasts, the more it reduces the strain” on waste management resources, on production resources and on the environment as a whole, he said.

“The government needs to use taxes, laws and legislation to discourage companies from planned obsolescence,” MacDonald said.

“The government needs to use taxes, laws and legislation to discourage companies from planned obsolescence.”

— Douglas MacDonald, U of T environmental studies professor

A recent example of the impact of product obsolescence is seen in the release of Windows Vista. A report released by SoftChoice Corp., a technology consulting company, stated that roughly 50 per cent of personal computers currently on the market were “below Windows Vista’s basic system requirements.” That incompatibility could result in nearly 10 million discarded PCs becoming landfill fodder within the next two years, as people upgrade their operating system and hardware, said Tony Roberts, CEO of Computer Aid International, a U.K. charity.

PC Pro Magazine reports that despite the potential disposal legacy of the Vista launch, Microsoft will not be paying into any plan to help people upgrade their current computers at minimal cost (both financially and in terms of resources), nor into any new recycling programs for old IT equipment, nor into any environment programs that deal with the effects of e-waste. Microsoft officials could not be reached for comment.

“There needs to be a federal initiative that says companies that construct these products must be responsible for their e-waste,” Diamond said.

Diamond wants the industry to change not just recycling practices, but how products are made. “It is unconscionable that these industries have created a two- or three-year turnover for these products when we could easily repair or replace components,” she said.

Repairable and replaceable products, planned durability, legislation restricting toxic elements, and waste planning are essential in dealing with the global e-waste dilemma, environmental experts say. But the real change will come when “simply put, we find other ways to find happiness and self-esteem than through the purchase of a product,” MacDonald said.

Environment Canada offers these suggestions for dealing with electric and electronic equipment:

  • If possible, upgrade your computer, electronic or electric goods rather than replacing them.
  • Check with the equipment’s manufacturer to find out about product take-back policies and programs.
  • Instead of throwing it out, donate your old computer equipment to a family member, friend or a charitable organization that can put it to use. Go to www.reboot.on.ca to find a recycling location (or school computer program).
  • Find an organization in your community that accepts old computer equipment for refurbishing (but check its credentials to make sure unusable items or components are actually recycled).
  • Check with your local computer store or municipality to learn about disposal or recycling options in your area.
  • Increase your community’s awareness of the issue by passing this information on to friends and neighbours.
  • Make your local technology supplier aware of your desire for pollution-preventative products.

Originally published on CBC News on March 16, 2007