The Trash Blog

E-Waste Recycling in British Columbia

Pile of Circuit BoardsE-waste is not happy stuff: “Consumer electronics already constitute 40% of lead found in landfills,” according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. “Other hazardous materials used in computers and other electronic devices include cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, PVC plastic and brominated flame retardants.” And there’s a lot of it: “The EPR2 Baseline Report indicates that as many as 500 million personal computers will have become obsolete between 1997-2007. By the year 2003, CRT monitor obsolescence will reach 26.1 million per year.” (McGraw-Hill Recycling Handbook).

 While I was at The Hackery, I got a primer on e-waste and how it’s handled in British Columbia, courtesy of Dave Repa.

In Vancouver, it is illegal to dispose of e-waste in the landfill; in addition, as a one of the countries that joined in the consensus decision of the Basel Ban passed at the Second Conference of Parties of the Basel Convention, 25 March 1994, Canada also has banned all exports of hazardous waste to developing countries.

What we say on paper is often different from what we do; if you are interested in more about hazardous waste exports, it might be worthwhile to check out the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Since you aren’t supposed to bury, burn, or ship away your e-waste, Dave told me what Vancouver and British Columbia do with it.Pile of Harddrives Widescreen

There is a government sanctioned stewardship organization for e-waste in BC, called EPRA, the Electronics Products and Recycling Association (formerly the ESABC, Electronics Stewardship Association of BC). “The stewards in the EPRA program are comprised of major producers and retailers of electronics in British Columbia.” (EPRA Website). Companies like Best Buy, Sony, HP, Dell, and London Drugs. The EPRA is responsible for taking back most of the e-waste in BC. “EPRA’s electronics recycling program is delivered to BC, by Encorp Pacific under the brand Return-It™ Electronics. ” (EPRA Website)

When you buy almost any electronic product in BC, you pay what’s called an EHF, or an Environmental Handling Fee. This fee is $5.50 for a desktop computer or $9.00 for a CRT monitor. 100% of this fee is remitted to the EPRA for the “administration, collection, transportation, and responsible recycling of end-of-life electronics” (Encorp).Pile of Cords

EPRA contracts with several processors in BC who recover whatever materials there is a market for. The primary recyclers used by the EPRA are Ecycle Solutions, FCM Recycling, Global Electric Electronic Processing, Genesis Recycling, and Teck (which has recently been successfully sued for dumping 9.97 million tons of slag into the Columbia River).

Some of these processors dismantle the e-waste (which Dave says almost always is done by hand), while others simply shred it. While shredding compromises the quality of the material recovered, the lower value can be balanced out by a higher volume of material.

Pile of MonitorsEcycle Solutions use shredders and their website says they can achieve a 98% recovery rating. They have several promotional videos on their website that show their assembly lines and some of their processes.

Genesis Recycling’s website says that no electronics or machinery are shipped whole to offshore recyclers and that all electronics are dismantled at their plant, separated and graded into almost fifty commodity types (copper, steel, wire, mixed plastics…). These commodities are sold to refiners who process the materials for resale to manufacturers.

Pile of KeyboardsThe EPRA collected 21,255 metric tons of material in 2011, or about 4.7 kg per person in BC, at a cost of $1284 a ton, $158 of which was administrative overhead. The majority of the cost (57%) was consumed by processing, although handling made up 19% of the cost and transportation and storage another 17% (EPRA Annual Report 2011).

Dave made the distinction that although the EPRA system is called extended producer responsibility, it is really extended consumer responsibility because the fees that support the whole structure are paid by consumers directly, rather than a system where producers are funding the recycling.

This entry was written by Philip and published on March 21, 2013 at 2:09 am. It’s filed under E-Waste, Facts, Laws and Regulations, Metal, Recycling and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

4 thoughts on “E-Waste Recycling in British Columbia

  1. Chris Stewart on said:

    Nicely detailed essay! Interesting information!

    (Some spell checking required, however. HA!)

    Regarding your last sentence, one thing about business: In the end-user sales transaction, only one guy takes out his wallet. The ultimate customer is the guy without recourse to pass along his “cost”. Consequently, no matter how the recycling fees are structured, the last purchaser of the completed product pays them, no matter what.

  2. Philip on said:

    Recognizing that most (all?) costs end up in the consumer’s lap, I think there is still a distinction. Here’s an example: when it comes to landfills, consumers (through taxation and fees) pay the cost of disposal, however producers who use large amounts of packaging on their products have no reason to pass the cost of that packaging’s disposal along to the consumer in the price-tag, because the consumer is already funding it through their landfill fees. However when landfill fees go up, it is not necessarily likely that the consumer will recognize the excess packaging as a source of pain to their wallet. If the producer was held directly responsible for the disposal of their packaging, they would pass that cost along to the consumer in a higher price-tag on shelf, allowing the consumer to make a more directly informed decision about the product. In the same way, the e-waste system in BC having the consumer pay a recycling fee does not necessarily tie the cost of the product’s disposal to the price-tag. The consumer pays a flat fee for a monitor of brand x or y, regardless of whether it ends up costing recyclers more to process an end-of-life x than y. I agree that it always comes down to the guy who has no recourse, but the issue here, I think, is about tying the true cost of an item (from creation to disposal) as closely to the item as possible, rather than allowing large (often publicly funded) systems to hide those costs.

    • Chris Stewart on said:

      I understand your point. Briefly, your claim is that WHERE (i.e., to whom) fees are applied can make a difference in the effectiveness with which behavior is changed. In the case you cite, you argue that applying the package disposal fee specifically to the manufacturer better controls (reduces) excess packaging that is dumped in the landfill than applying the same fee generally to the citizen-consumer by increasing his disposal costs.

      Let us grant that your point is not only well taken, but also correct. On that basis we will see where it leads us.

      First, no matter where the fee is applied, the end user is still the one who pays it without recourse. Again, your point is that the manufacturer will work to reduce this passed on cost in the interest of selling more of his product than he otherwise might, even if he is held harmless by passing on the fee. However, this understanding falls short of a comprehensive perception of the effect of the fee, in my view.

      Effectively the government, no matter where the fee is imposed, (forcibly) removes money from the consumer. Every such extraction reduces the ability of the consumer to spend in the private sector (i.e., to buy the products of the manufacturer, whether an “excess packager” or not) by diverting money to the public sector. When governments increase such diversions, no matter how wonderful the underlying intentions, tactics, or strategies, to the point where consumers are unable, or unwilling, to purchase from the manufacturer, then two things happen:

      1. Unfortunately, the private economy begins to collapse.
      2. Fortunately, at the same time, the ecological dangers are mitigated or eliminated.

      The unfortunate result is the great unseen consequence of governments who come to believe that they can solve social problems through statutes, rules, regulations, taxes, or fees. President Regan was fond of observing the behavior of such governments by noting that they loved to tax anything that moved, to regulate anything that kept moving after it was taxed, and to subsidize anything that subsequently stopped moving.

      This, in my view, must have been President’s Regan’s way of referring, in an approving manner, to the economic metaphor of the “unseen hand” of Adam Smith. As early as 1750, Mr. Smith, building on the work of others, proposed that humans, left to their own devices in a free enterprise system (meaning, among other things, without interference by governments), would, in the long-term, self-regulate the behavior of their marketplaces for the best interests of all participants.

      Until 80 years ago, this is a philosophy that seemed to be working fairly well in America. I doubt you two will agree with the foregoing claim; however, some of your pictures in The Pompous Garbageman Had It Right would seem to support this assertion. However, we can leave this discussion for later, eh?

      Second, the economic parable of the broken window seems applicable here as well. Briefly, this is the story of the bookseller’s son who broke a window in his father’s shop.

      What is seen is that the glazier who comes to repair the window walks away with a profit, thereby making it more possible for him to support his family. The glazier has increased his wealth as the result of his being hired to repair the broken window and now may be able to purchase a new book or a new pair of shoes. From this point of view, the glazier might consider paying the bookseller’s son a commission on every window the little boy can break.

      What is unseen is that economic wealth of the bookseller and glazier together, their neighborhood, city, region, or state (indeed, the world!) has not increased by one window or by anything else. Instead, a broken window has simply been repaired. Further, the bookseller had to pay to have the window repaired; and, in so doing, is less wealthy than he was, or otherwise would have been. Moreover, the bookseller is now denied the opportunity to purchase a new book or a new pair of shoes with the money that he had to spend on repairing the window.

      If we equate the bookseller’s son to the government, his father to the taxpayer, and the glazier to the special interests of the recycling industry, then we see how the government forces the taxpayer to fund the economic needs of recyclers. It might seem wonderful to see the recyclers flourish under a government program that forces the end user, as consumer or taxpayer, to ultimately underwrite the costs.

      However, is the fact that wealth is (largely) NOT created in these kinds of economic transactions a more important, less important, or equally important consequence than the behavior that might be changed to protect the environment? Perhaps a better question would be whether stifling wealth creation by redirecting the flow of money through the public sector for (fill in wonderful intention here) should be factored as an offsetting cost of using government to address / solve social issues.

      I am eager to discover such answers from the Trash Blog!

      Write on!

      • Philip on said:

        I think we both are thankful for some regulation. Governments exist not solely to waste the public’s money (although this is much of what they do) but also because they are a necessity to our daily life. Regulation, while perhaps stifling wealth creation, allows for the enjoyment of that wealth and oftentimes depletes the unnecessary expenditure of that wealth.

        Let’s focus on the assertion that “a free enterprise system (meaning, among other things, without interference by governments), would, in the long-term, self-regulate the behavior of their marketplaces for the best interests of all participants.” In particular, I want to focus on the phrase “long-term.”

        Imagine a situation where an employer has a task that requires an employee to be around asbestos. Since we are functioning in a world where regulation stifles wealth creation and we are all for wealth creation, we are going to also imagine that there is no regulation regarding exposure to asbestos. Now in our perfect market world, employees would evaluate the risk of working this job and make their own choice regarding whether or not the risks of asbestos-related diseases twenty or thirty years from now are worth the pay. I don’t think I’ve met very many workers who are able to make such informed decisions. In general, we humans are short-term thinkers. We will take the risk of “maybe getting cancer thirty years from now” as more than acceptable for a good wage. I don’t see how a free market will fairly create wealth here.

        Another example would be packaging waste. If the manufacturer of a product believes he will sell more product by packaging it in a bright big plastic thing, they will do so, and they will do so regardless of whatever is discovered to be the problems with disposing that package (bulk, toxicity). You and I will buy the bright big plastic thing because it catches our eye and we will throw it out and we probably won’t connect the bright big plastic thing to our increased costs ten years from now when we have to pay to have our garbage picked up twice a week because of the increase in packaging waste. Also there is the potential cost of such packaging waste degrading in a landfill and leaching into an aquifer and compromising our drinking water for which we will have to pay more money (again, not linked to the original producer of the package) to have it cleaned. Where is the incentive for the original producer to reduce the amount of packaging? Where is the incentive for the consumer to not purchase that item because of the costs it will eventually bring to bear on that same consumer?

        I think the market depends on their being accurate information available to all parties. In order to make decisions in the market that lead to the greatest creation of wealth for the largest number of people we must have accurate information. Landfills and garbage in general are incredibly complex; the soup of items that are disposed of and how those items may pose hazards in the future is unclear. I’d rather not wait for the market to zig-zag through its many corrections, one of which may be my death when I drink contaminated water, in order for it to figure out that it has an incentive to reduce the toxicity of e-waste or the amount of packaging.

        I question placing this argument as a choice between economic collapse and environmental disaster. I think it is clear to both of us that a fabulous world of wealthy people who haven’t any air to breathe is as pointless as a pristine world in which everyone has to make do with sticks and stones and no economy to speak of. Both situations have little bearing on the conversation. To me the important question here is whether the stifling of wealth creation brought about by regulation is worth the environmental benefits provided.

        In the case of BC, I’m not sure that their fee for e-waste is the best way to do it. Instead, you could require producers to deal with the disposal of their products, allowing those producers to determine the best method of financing that. This would still be a cost passed on to consumers, but I think it is a fair way of allowing the market to work out the most cost-effective way to deal with something, which thing in this case is the toxic nature of the products we all demand to throw away.

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