Tuesday, 18 June 2013

E-Waste: What is it, and what do we do with it?

When humanity entered the Information Age, it was heralded as the end to paper waste.  Everything would be electronically created, storage, shared, and viewed.  Computers, the Internet, wireless, and the mass of new technology was going to remove the need for this kind of waste.  What wasn’t thought of was the new kind of waste that was going to be created as obsolete or broken down electronics and gadgets became replaced by the next version. 

E-waste has become a growing concern for most nations.  Landfills have become filled with our old computers, cell phones, printers, iPods, and other electronics that we take for granted.  However, our experience in dealing with waste in general is showing that we are prepared to deal with e-waste so long as we are committed to doing so.  Recycling programs, government initiatives, and social responsibility are leading the challenge in dealing with this by-product of evolving technology. 

What is E-Waste?

E-waste is what has become known as the discarded electronics and appliances that are commonly found in homes and businesses.  They are the computers, cell phones, printers, refrigerators, gaming consoles, and other consumer electronics that have become obsolete, broken, or surplus.  On average, the most common electronic devices are replaced frequently:

  • Cell phones – replaced every 22 months.
  • Desktop computers – replaced every 2 years.
  • Televisions – replaced every 10+ years.
  • Portable music players – replaced every 2-3 years.
  • DVD players – replaced every 4-5 years.
  • Printers – replaced every 5+ years.

Every year, there is between 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste, representing the faster growing portion of municipal waste. 

Historically, e-waste has contained many hazardous materials.  There was lead and mercury in old cathode ray tube televisions, cadmium in batteries, and the presence of hexavalent chromium, acrylamide, polybrominated biphenyls, and polybrominated diphenyl ether in many other electronics.  In throwing such waste into landfills, these hazardous materials and chemicals can leach into the soil and cause significant and irreparable damage to delicate ecosystems.

Statistics and Perspective

Our lives are centred around electronics.  The average home will purchase $1,179 worth of electronics every year.  To put this into perspective, approximately 5.1 million televisions were purchased in the United States for the sole purpose of being ready for the 2012 NFL Superbowl.  Over 99 million televisions are stockpiled for sale in the United States at any given time.  All of these will one day end up as e-waste. 

Initiatives to reduce the amount of e-waste the end up in landfills are underway.  One of the driving forces behind this is the amount of expensive metals that are used in the construction of electronics that can be reused and sold.  In 1 million cell phones, there is 24 kg of gold, 250 kg of silver, 9 kg of palladium, and 9,000 kg of copper.  These are able to reused in new electronics, reducing the amount required to mine them.  These metals are also commodities themselves, and are easily traded and sold as well.

What is Being Done

The reasons for reducing the amount of e-waste are many, from reducing the sizes of landfills, preventing hazardous materials from leaching into the environment, and creating businesses that harvest precious metals.  First, it is important to note that many of our electronics are now manufactured with less environmentally damaging materials.  The transition from CRT TVs to LED TVs removed the need for lead and mercury.  Cadmium is no longer used in batteries (still in rechargeable ones) and hexavalent chromium and acrylamide and no longer used in any electronic manufacturing.  Finally, flame retardant materials such as polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl have been phased out as safer materials have replaced them.  This has massively reduced the amount of hazardous materials that leach into the soil from e-waster that does make it to the landfills.

Canada has adopted the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, a government initiative that amalgamates the efforts of more than 25 different agencies in combating environmental issues.  Through this, the Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, a not-for-profit organization, has been created.

It is currently operational in 7 different provinces with it pending approval in the 3 others.  The territories currently have no plans for inclusion under this initiative.  This has created a nationwide standard for e-waste recycling.  In addition, several major municipal governments in Canada have passed even stricter bylaws to further remove e-waste from their landfills.  This has led to direct cost savings for cities are landfill use is lowered.  It is estimated that British Columbia has saved almost $24 million through their recycling programs and Ontario has saved more than $65 million.  This has led to Canada becoming an international leader in e-waste management and recycling.  Even the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic medals were all made from recovered materials from e-waste! 

What Can You Do?

The reduction of e-waste begins with us.  We must evaluate whether we really need that next generation cell phone now or if our current and still working one is good.  Electronics that we are no long using can also be given to others to use, sent to recycling centres, or be donated to programs such as Computers for Schools or through partners of the federal Crown Assets Distribution.

We all want new technology and electronics.  However, we must be conscious in how we dispose of the ones we are no longer using.  In doing this simple act, we can lower the amount of e-waste that makes its way to landfills and can extend the lives of electronic devices through donation or recycle them so that their materials can be used in the new gadgets that we want!