Waste not, want not

Photo by Mosman Council

Guiyu, China is the biggest e-waste dumpsite in the world and one of the landscapes that starred in Ed Burtynsky’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes. According to the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Electronics Takeback Coalition, 82 per cent of small children in Guiyu have tested positive for clinical lead poisoning, which can result in damage to the brain, nerves, and other body parts.

Otherwise known as waste from electrical and electronic equipment, e-waste contains hazardous materials and heavy metals such as fire retardants, polychlorinated biphenyl, lead, mercury, cadmium, and the list goes on. Often the waste is shipped overseas to undeveloped countries where the toxins inside pollute the people, and the environment.

BAN first brought e-waste to the world’s attention in a 2002 report titled Exporting Harm: The High-tech Trashing of Asia, where it asserted an estimated 80 per cent of all e-waste collected in North America for recycling is shipped offshore and 90 per cent of that goes to China.

China is not alone. Ghana and Nigeria have become e-waste dumpsites as well.

Despite the establishment of e-waste recycling programs and landfill bans across North America, the amount of e-waste shipped overseas remains “about the same,” says Jim Puckett, founder of BAN and a toxics policy advocate.

The Environment Protection Agency estimates the U.S. generated over 3 million tones of e-waste in 2007, but only 13.6 per cent of that was collected for recycling.

The lack of harmonized legislation has allowed many unregulated or “grey” recyclers to profit from this relatively new industry and Canada is not exempt.

“If you asked Environment Canada how much is going out through the ports illegally in containers they don’t know,” says Frances Edmonds, Director of Environmental Programs for Hewlett-Packard Canada.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice made no comment in reply.

Global Electric Electronic Processing (GEEP) is one of Canada’s largest e-waste processors and with facilities in Europe and the U.S., GEEP Vice President Wallace MacKay notes they are constantly being audited. “You have to prove that you’re doing it the right way or you’re going to get all kinds of charlatans out there shoveling this stuff into a sea container and shipping it off to China. And believe me it’s happening,” says MacKay.

Despite tighter Canadian regulations, there are a number of grey recyclers that continue to ship to developing countries.

Companies like GEEP and Sims Recycling Solutions Canada pride themselves on how responsibly they recycle and reclaim the commodity materials contained in e-waste. “We follow [everything] to its final resting place where it’s re-consumed into a new product,” explains Cindy Coutts, President of Sims.

While some processors go the extra mile to further separate the mixed plastics contained in a lot of e-waste, many companies simply send mixed plastics to a smelter, where the plastic is burned off creating dioxins that pollute the air.

“Plastic is the holy grail of recycling because it’s mixed and very expensive to separate,” says Edmonds.

This is one thing all e-waste recyclers and processors agree on.

And, because some companies are researching and developing new ways to deal with mixed plastics in e-waste, when contracts are awarded to processors based on their plant’s proximity to the collection site rather than on the merits of its practices, it’s a frustrating challenge.

It’s the lack of commitment to these details by some companies approved by various provincial programs that makes it difficult for enterprising companies to compete.

This is just one of many issues that has sparked controversy in Ontario over the poor performance of the Ontario Electronics Stewardship (OES) program— an industry-funded program created to implement the government’s diversion plans. OES promised to divert 45,000 tonnes of e-waste in its first year and was only able to divert 17,000 tonnes—just 1.3 kilograms per capita.

While Ontario is the only province that set a target and collected the most tonnes in its first year, at least one province is exceeding the European Union’s benchmark of 4 kilograms per capita for e-waste collected and recycled. As of 2009, Alberta’s e-waste recycling plan reported recycling 4.74 kg/capita. Ontario’s rate is second last amongst the seven provinces operating an e-waste recycling program.

Waste Diversion Ontario would not confirm the final numbers and Ontario’s Minister of the Environment John Gerretsen could not be reached.

“You have to take these numbers with a large grain of salt,” states Mario D’Alfonso, owner of ADL Process Inc., an e-waste recycler in Toronto.

At ADL, their corporate contracts bring in 60 tonnes of e-waste and between 160-180 tonnes from the provincial program.

Many e-waste processors have private contracts and collections and the tonnage from these contracts is not taken into account by provincial programs.

For example, GEEP recycles 25,000 tonnes a year at its Barrie facility alone and Sims processes 36,000 tonnes a year at its Brampton site. Their numbers add up to 16,000 tonnes more than OES hoped to collect. And these are just two of eight recyclers listed on the OES website.

Each provincial program had difficulties in their first year.

No provincial program collected more than 17,000 in the last year, much less its first year. Likewise, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut are all without e-waste recycling programs.

In the U.S., 17 states do not have e-waste programs and because shipping e-waste overseas is unregulated and highly profitable many U.S. recyclers are grey and therefore ship the waste to places like China. “That’s our biggest problem in the U.S.,” comments Dr. Greg McWatt of GEEP.

By comparison, Canada’s legislation has been tougher and our programs more inclusive in terms of the various types of e-waste collected. Alberta was the first e-waste recycling program to accept printers—even ahead of California.

While Canada is lagging behind the European Union, “Canada’s way ahead of the U.S. in terms of legislation,” says MacKay. “We should be proud of that.”

For more information go to 
dowhatyoucan.caepsc.ca and ban.org. You can find a list of companies ranked according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change here.

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