E-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.
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).
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.
Ecycle 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.
The 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.