Eating & Drinking

URBAN HIPPIE: Score tons of new electronics for Christmas? An e-primer on getting rid of e-waste

Urban Hippie by Jen Lahey is published every second Tuesday at OttawaMagazine.com. Follow Jen on Twitter ‏@Jen_Lahey.

Ah, January: back to work and routine for all, and if past experience tells us anything, lots of us are probably distracting ourselves by playing around with newly acquired electronics left by good ol’ Santa. And with new e-readers, computers, and phones comes the obviouys: old electronics relegated to the sidelines. Some of you may have passed these still-good gems on to friends or family, but some of them may now officially be under the category of something called e-waste. Herewith, a primer on e-waste, why you should care about it, and top tips for dealing with your newly old electronics.

What it is:

Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to discarded electronic products, including mobile phones, laptop computers, monitors, TVs, VCRs, phones and cell phones, e-readers, printers, fax machines, photocopiers, and MP3 players, computers, televisions and audio equipment.

According to the United Nations, 20-50 million tonnes of e-waste are generated globally each year, and it’s estimated that we Canucks generate 200,000 tonnes of e-waste per year, although that number may actually be much higher.  The City of Ottawa says that here in the capital we generate 3,000 tonnes of the stuff, or 300 trucks full.

More than 1,000 materials are used to make electronic products and their components, including chlorinated solvents, brominated flame retardents, PVC, heavy metals, plastics, and various gases. The big deal is that these toxicants are released at every step of the production and in the use of electronics, with the heaviest impact coming at the end-of-life stage, when electronics are disposed of…in landfills, where it all seeps into the ecosystem.

Electronics production is also a kicker when it comes to resource use. A United Nations study found that the manufacture of one computer and its monitor — just one — uses 22 kg of chemicals and 1.5 tonnes water. Nearly 300 kg of fossil fuels are used.

Electronics production is also dependent on the depletion of already scarce minerals, and the extraction and mining of those minerals can have serious environmental impacts.

It’s also worth pointing out that more than per cent of a desktop computer’s energy use is in making the product, not in using it.

One last area to round out the primer, and it’s a biggie: human rights. To stop (richer) developed countries from exporting potentially toxic e-waste to (poorer) developing nations where environmental regulations, workers’ rights, and strength of governance may be weak (a more cost–effective but socially and environmentally irresponsible means of dealing with e-waste), the Basel Convention was developed. Canada ratified this convention in 1994. Despite this Convention, violations of the Convention by member countries continue to be documented.

So what are we supposed to do about it? Top tips:

Demand products that are more durable and don’t have to be replaced as often;

Support companies that are making greener products and using greener materials and technology;

Maximize use by postponing replacement of electronics, or by giving (gifting!) the item to a second user;

Participate in local e-waste diversion and recycling programs;*

Return products to the manufacturer when you’re done with them; 

Seek out organizations that specialize in e-waste recycling and reuse services.

*Here in Ottawa, e-waste is not picked up curbside. The city runs one-day e-waste drop-off days, which it lists on the city’s website . Some retailers in the Ottawa also take back electronics for safe disposal, so when you buy your new toys, ask if they’ll take your old ones back for recycling.