By Jessica Ellington, Leah Karpus, and Elizabeth Quan
At present, the world’s largest and fastest growing manufacturing industry is that of electronics production. The accelerated expansion of the electronics industry has predictably caused the most rapidly growing waste stream in the industrialized world.
Electronic waste, commonly referred to as e-waste, is electronic equipment such as broken cellphones, old computers, iPods, small appliances, and other obsolete gadgets that no longer serve a purpose and are thus discarded. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 20 to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste are generated each year worldwide.
Such staggering statistics are what spurred nine Simon Fraser University communication students to start a campaign against the damages caused by e-waste.
In the beginning, e-waste was a new issue to many of us in the group. However, we were all quickly able to comprehend its importance because of our own exposure to the digital age, in which we have been immersed since birth. As students, we see how much technology has impacted our lives and also how quickly it changes. We have seen our cellphones, video games, and computers become obsolete, but we had never thought of its consequences until now.
In 1989, Canada signed the Basel Convention, an international treaty which aims to reduce the amount of e-waste being transported to lesser developed countries. Although this law has been ratified, it is evident that it has not been thoroughly implemented because tons of e-waste are still ending up in landfills across India, China, and western and central Africa. North America and Europe are known to be the largest exporters of e-waste.
The dangers associated with e-waste are not only limited to the physical waste itself. More severe problems occur when the waste is broken apart. Throughout the process of dismantling electronic devices, the toxins in the products can contaminate the air, water, and soil if not treated in a sustainable manner. In most developing countries, weak labour regulations exacerbate the practice of primitive recycling methods. As a result, the exposure of these toxins has been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, neurological and respiratory disorders, and birth defects.
To gain some insight into the problem of e-waste, our group took a tour of Free Geek, a nonprofit, ethical recycling organization. Getting a glimpse into the operations of this depot revealed to us just how much e-waste and ethical recycling are overlooked by Canadians. One of Free Geek’s main objectives is to ethically recycle computer waste. Companies ship their e-waste to the depot and from there, Free Geek evaluates and refurbishes what they can with the help of their dedicated volunteers. E-waste that is left over is transported to other approved recycling sites.
Our trip to Free Geek has inspired and motivated us to take action on this environmental and social issue. E-waste has been disregarded by citizens and the government for far too long. So, as a starting point, we are hosting an “E-waste Day” at SFU’s Burnaby campus on Monday (March 14). That day, all nine of us will be in the Academic Quadrangle, answering questions, giving out information about e-waste, and taking in old appliances and electronics. Bring your old cellphones, computers (if you can carry them!), iPods, and small appliances. At the end of the day, we’ll bring them to Free Geek, where they will be refurbished and will not be sent overseas.