Did you cast away your BlackBerry for a new iPhone, trade in your gigantic old television for a plasma screen that hangs on your wall, or exchange your chunky digital camera for a model with the dimensions of a Pop-Tart?
Electronic gadgets, once as ungainly as metal lunch boxes, are increasingly becoming sexy baubles. Get the latest, trendiest smartphone and even your friends who don’t know how to send a text message are envious. Most people, however, don’t realize where their old gadgets end up.
They might want to watch eDump. The documentary by New York journalist Michael Zhao takes viewers on a startling visit to the world’s largest dumping ground for electronic waste—Guiyu, China. In this rural town, parts of old devices lie in piles by the road, the water is as dark as soy sauce, and the air is permeated with the smell of burning plastic.
In the film, two women sit in front of coal stoves 10 hours a day, breathing in toxic fumes as they heat circuit boards to break them down for parts. Later, two male workers, also wearing no protection, use harsh industrial chemicals to separate gold from circuit boards for about US$10 a day.
Discarded televisions, computers, and cellphones from throughout the industrialized world are sent to Guiyu to be stripped of their usable components. Unsalvageable parts are simply dumped at the side of the road or into the river. The problem? These devices contain toxic substances like lead, cadmium, and mercury, which pollute the air and water when disposed of improperly. In Guiyu, agriculture has been decimated by pollution, and children have alarmingly high levels of lead in their blood.
Zhao says he made the film in order to show North Americans where their high-tech garbage goes. “People will think, ”˜I want a new cellphone. What’s the harm?’ ” says Zhao, whose documentary can be viewed on his Web site (www.michaelzhao.net/ ). “When they get rid of a computer, they don’t think of it as waste.”
According to a 2003 Environment Canada report, Canadians produce 140,000 tonnes of e-waste each year—an average of about 4.5 kilograms per person. These numbers have likely grown since then due to the digital onslaught brought on by the widespread popularity of flat-screen TVs and iPods.
Unlike the United States, Canada is among the approximately 170 countries that have ratified the Basel Convention, an international treaty that restricts the movement of hazardous waste from richer countries—which have stricter pollution and safety standards—to developing countries like China, India, and Nigeria. However, because processing e-waste is such a lucrative business, smugglers have kept the flow of these materials crossing borders at a steady rate.
In December 2006, for instance, the Canada Border Services Agency and Environment Canada announced that a joint investigation at the port of Vancouver over the previous year had led to the interception of 50 containers filled with about 500,000 kilograms of computer monitors and other e-waste destined for China.
“In the last few years, we’ve seen consumers paying more attention to the environment and what happens to the product,” says Dalton Burger, the president of Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, an industry association whose members include Apple Canada Inc., Sony of Canada Ltd., and Hewlett-Packard Canada. “Manufacturers are always going to respond to consumer demand.” Individual companies like Sony have started take-back programs, while others like Apple are improving their designs so that they use fewer toxic substances.
EPS Canada has partnered with provincial governments to break down and dispose of the components of “end of life” electronic goods in a responsible fashion. So far, there are programs in place in B.C., Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia, with one launching in Ontario next year. As well, Alberta has an e-waste recycling program that isn’t affiliated with EPS Canada.
In B.C., the recycling is handled by Encorp Pacific, a nonprofit corporation that’s primarily dealt with beverage containers in the past. Working with vetted vendors like eCycle Solutions and Sims Recycling Solutions, Encorp makes sure that nonhazardous materials like aluminum, plastics, and nonleaded glass are smelted in North America and Belgium, and that “substances of concern”, like lead and zinc, are “captured and processed” responsibly.
These initiatives are funded by environmental handling fees levied on new products, which in B.C. include desktop computers ($10), TVs ($15 to $45, depending on screen size), and printers ($8) but not cellphones. Burger notes that only 27 percent of the 11 million products entering the Ontario market are recycled. “We need to get that rate a lot higher,” he says.
For Ifny Lachance, such programs are only part of the answer. “The core of recycling is reducing waste and increasing reuse,” she says. Lachance is a cofounder of and coordinator at Free Geek Vancouver, a volunteer-run organization that refurbishes donated computers with free, open-source software. Free Geek sells some of the computers in its thrift store, gives others to its volunteers, and donates the rest to charities. “Unless you’re a hard-core gamer or doing video editing for a living,” Lachance says, “there’s absolutely no reason anyone should buy a new computer.”
Vancouverites have a number of options when it comes time to deal with their old electronics. They can donate computers to Free Geek (freegeekvancouver.org/ ) or the Electronic Recycling Association (www.era.ca/ ); sell, trade, or give away these items on the B.C. Electronics Materials Exchange (www.bcemex.ca/ ) or Vancouver Reuses (www.vancouver.reuses.com/ ) Web sites; or drop off their old goods at one of Encorp’s Return-It locations (www.encorp.ca/ ).
With most people discarding their computers after an average of two to three years and trashing their cellphones after only 14 months, it might be better if we stopped thinking of our gadgets as fashion accessories and more like those clunky lunch boxes.