Features | Electronic afterlife

The Daily’s Max Halparin traces the toxic flows of e-waste

Rarely are we confronted with the after-life of our electronics. From underneath layers of plastic, they initially offer speed or convenience, and when their use has expired or their value depleted, we might stash them in a garage, closet, or landfill. Or, we could opt for recycling or donation – words that can take on new, toxic connotations in the world of electronic waste.

The shift from cathode ray tube (CRT) to flat-screen computer monitors in the past couple of years is the most recent example of a technological redirection resulting in enormous amounts of discarded electronics. Instead of reaching the end of their functional lifetimes on work desks and in study spaces, the round-backed monitors are now stacked in warehouses, used as door stops in The Daily office, or, perhaps more likely, on a boat headed to Asia – along with millions of other tonnes of yesterday’s cell phones, laptops, printers, televisions, and other devices that make up electronic or e-waste. Not surprisingly, a truckload of CRTs awaiting shipment from Colorado to China adorns the cover of Giles Shades’ “Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America,” in which the freelance writer traces the roots of disposability as a marketing tool to the current e-waste problem.

Detailed reports on e-waste destinations like China, India, and Pakistan focus on the links between discarded electronics and a significant set of health and environmental repercussions. The town of Guiyu, China has become infamous for its illegal e-waste recycling operations: riverside hills turned into trash heaps, and the effects of chemical and metal leaching evident both in the brown water and the trucks that bring in barrels of clean water from elsewhere. Citizens of all ages dismantle, de-solder, and openly burn circuit boards, monitors, and printer toners to retrieve the precious metals packed deep within other plastics and glass.

With rubber boots often serving as their only protective wear, residents of Guiyu and other e-waste destinations expose themselves to other high-tech ingredients, including lead, cadmium, and mercury – part of the non-ferrous metals that make up 18 per cent of the material inside computers. First documented in a 2002 report headed by the two main activist groups working on e-waste, the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, “Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia” explains that lead, which can alone account for two kilograms of non-recyclable computer components, has long been shown to wreak havoc on child brain development, central and peripheral nervous systems, as well as kidney and reproductive systems, while exposure to mercury can also cause damage to the brain and kidneys. Despite these dangers, the shipments keep on coming – about 50 to 80 per cent of e-waste collected in North America finds its way to China, despite the country having banned the import of hazardous goods.

Consider another oft-quoted statistic: the United Nations (via an electronics magazine) estimates that between 20 and 50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated each year. If this seems staggering, it should. Both the magnitude and uncertainty of this figure highlight several important issues in the e-waste problem.

No one knows exactly how much or what type of e-waste each country produces, or where it goes after collection. Environment Canada estimates that Canadians dispose of around 140,000 tonnes of e-waste annually, though their media reps couldn’t dig up the figure for 2008 before press time. However, according to a report by the Quebec Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment, and Parks, this number was closer to 99,000 tonnes in 2005. It’s not long before these materials find themselves in the waste stream – the report states that electronic products have an average life span of three and a half years, with cell phones lasting only an average of two. Unlike other traded goods identified with the North American Industry Classification System, there are no internationally-agreed upon tariff codes or standards for measuring the global flows of e-waste, and researchers investigating this topic can spend over a year simply identifying and managing the variables they plan to use as proxies for their studies.

Josh Lepawski, a geography professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, is one such professor. He says he became interested in e-waste about five years ago while studying the Malaysian government’s attempt to transform a predominantly agricultural landscape into a high-tech urban development modeled on Silicon Valley.

Around the same time that some academics were etching geography’s name on a tombstone, Lepawksi says, looking at material flows of waste was a good way to continue studying necessary material geographies. And materially, production of IT is incredibly intensive – Lepawski notes that while it may only weigh a few grams, a typical silicon chip weighs 600 times its primary inputs, whereas a typical automobile weighs only twice the materials and water that went into making it.

“As I’ve gotten more deeply involved, I’ve become increasingly interested in the broader questions of what is waste and for whom, and under what conditions. The flipside of that is, how does something called ‘value’ emerge from what we dispose of as waste here in Canada when it moves overseas and is worked on in particular locations with particular people and conditions,” says Lepawski. He soon refers back to the “tangly issues” over the varying definitions of waste and value, after touching on some health and economic impacts of e-waste recycling in Asia.

The current exporting habits of nations who are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – such as Canada, the U.S., Japan, and several European countries – to non-OECD nations has resulted in the often informal e-waste recycling sector becoming a significant survival strategy, something Lepawski found after a trip to Bangladesh. Beyond the well-publicized toxic hazards, around which he says there is no argument, Lepawski notes that the activist literature hasn’t addressed what might happen to the livelihoods of recyclers if e-waste trade flows were to stop tomorrow. Using a CRT screen as an example, Lepawski says that buying it as scrap, breaking it down, and selling it back into production activities can result in profits of upward of 200 per cent, or about $10 per computer – potentially exceeding profit margins of the companies who originally produced it, though BAN’s estimates put that number closer to US$6.

There have been, and continue to be, international initiatives to prohibit the export of hazardous wastes from OECD to non-OECD countries. Most significantly, a 1994 amendment to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal aims to prohibit developed countries from exporting e-waste to industrializing ones. Known as the Basel Ban, 64 countries have ratified the resolution, and the 1989 Basel Convention received 170 signatures – meaning 170 countries are legally bound to monitor their imports and exports of hazardous wastes. Despite being one of the world’s largest consumers, the U.S. is the only industrial nation that has yet to sign the Convention.

“It’s important to understand why there is an amendment at all,” says Sarah Westervelt, BAN’s project manager. Though nations came together with the original intention to ban OECD countries from shipping toxic materials to non-OECD countries, she explains, “the U.S. and Canada primarily succeeded in gutting [the Convention] of its purpose to completely ban the export of toxic waste.” Westervelt was firm in her response to findings over the current economic situation for those employed by e-waste recycling overseas. “We are not doing anybody a favour by giving them a highly toxic job. If we want to provide jobs to other countries, we need to give them safe and clean jobs…. Giving them our hazardous waste to break down, exposing them to [toxic contents], putting these immortal heavy metals into their environments is completely immoral, inexcusable, and should be stopped immediately.”

The need for manufacturer responsibility in resolving the e-waste problem, however, is unanimous across activist and academic circles. “Manufacturers are the solution; governments must be a part of it. It can pass laws to hold manufacturers responsible, to not produce in first place, and if they do generate toxic products, they must be responsible for taking them back,” Westervelt says, which may be why she and other BAN members have voiced support for Canada’s industry-led system of end-product responsibility. Currently in place in B.C., Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia, with a quasi-governmental version in Alberta, the Recycling Vendor Qualification Program (RVQP) uses a strict auditing procedure on all e-waste recyclers and their downstream partners to prevent both the export of hazardous or electronic materials to non-OECD countries and the use of prison labour, and to ensure quality health and safety for workers.

“Canada is a very good example where industry has stepped up and taken responsibility for environmental stewardship seriously,” says Jay Illingworth, who began his job as Harmonization Coordinator for the three provinces in January after working as vice president for Electronic Product Stewardship Canada. He explains that once Ontario joins the other provinces in using the RVQP on Wednesday, five provinces will cover computers, monitors, printers, and televisions. Cell phones are still handled under the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which administers its own recycling program through recyclemycell.ca. Nova Scotia’s program goes further by collecting audiovisual and telecommunications equipment like mp3 players, headphones, and VCRs. “It’s only matter of time before it’s coast to coast,” Illingworth adds.

The varying provincial systems all depend on an environmental handling fee added to the retail price of electronic goods, all of which go directly to the domestic, ethical recycling of the goods. More than 20,000 tonnes of electronic goods have been diverted from landfills, and Illingworth says these stable revenues are important to the programs’ success, since they’re not vulnerable to fluctuations in demand for the recycled goods like market-based programs are. “I don’t think [the handling fee is] taking pressure off manufacturers – it’s shifting responsibility form tax base and sending a strong message to consumers and producers,” he says.

Yet, in the provinces where the RVQP program is fully operational, e-waste recyclers are not forced to join. This means they don’t have access to the funds collected by retailers, but that they can continue exporting these goods overseas as long as it remains profitable. Both Illingworth and Lepawski acknowledged this pitfall, and noted the role of Canada’s small market share – made even smaller by provincially-mandated waste management policy, and complicated by imports and exports being a federal issue – in influencing actions of other major actors.

By not forcing all recyclers or e-waste collecters to participate in Alberta’s system, for instance, Lepawski says “the legislation is undermining its own intentions.” He also explains that, due to deindustrialization and the removal of necessary infrastructure, North America can’t handle the volumes of e-waste it produces. “[E-waste] is going as feed stock to the very facilities that used to be here.”

In 2006, RECYC-Québec estimates that of the electronics generated, five per cent was recycled, eight per cent stored, 34 per cent reused, and 53 per cent incinerated – meaning just under half of e-waste was reused, stored, or recycled inside the province. A new provincial policy over all waste materials is in the works, so the Ministry of Environment couldn’t divulge details over any possible provisions for e-waste, like the adoption of the RVQP. Through their publicly posted reports, the Ministry of Environment seems well aware of the health and environmental issues around the export of e-waste – an illegal action for Canada, considering it has signed the Basel Ban. Still, with no comprehensive system in place to monitor or audit the recyclers and any of their partners downstream, the eventual whereabouts of discarded or recycled electronics can’t be known for sure.

There are dozens of options for Montrealers looking to recycle their e-waste, and a full list is available on RECYC-Québec’s web site. However, only one – Redemtech’s Dorval location – is currently listed as a recognized e-Steward by BAN. The consumer demand for electronics pick-up is evident. Last year on Earth Day, 1-800-GOT-JUNK held 70 separate e-waste events across the U.S. and Canada, collecting an average of one to five tons of waste, mostly computer monitors. The company, whose media rep said it holds its recyclers to e-Steward-level audits – is planning to hold it again this year, though Montreal isn’t currently listed as a location on its Earth Day web site.

The demand for a service whose sole function is to pick up unwanted goods surely indicates our relationship with waste is out of whack. For Lepawski, this comes back to the varying definition of waste and value. “In the most abstract sense, waste – like value – is not an objective thing,” he says. “In Canada, an electronic item takes on waste characteristics because Canadians think or feel they need the latest upgrade, when they’re really spending more than 90 per cent of their time using word processing and the Internet.”

Another unfortunate reality is that Canadians looking to balance the guilt of a new, unnecessary item often choose to donate their old-but-functioning machines to people in developing nations. But shipments of computers – objects whose attributes change over time and space – soon wind up in landfills in Africa. “[Waste and value] emerge as a consequence of geographic differences of wage rates and environmental legislation, of relative wealth and poverty, and as a consequence of mobility from place to place,” Lepawski explains.


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