Electronic waste is a growing problem worldwide. According to the United Nations, 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste are discarded every year while 41.8 million metric tonnes of electronic waste were shipped to developing countries for recycling in 2014.
While it sounds promising that so much e-waste is being shipped to other countries for recycling, the reality is that this type of cargo tends to end up in places with the cheapest labour such as China, India, Vietnam and countries in western Africa. In these developing and third world countries, laws governing environmental safety and human health and safety can be minimal to non-existent. As an example, the world’s largest e-waste dump in Agbobloshie, just outside Accra, Ghana, is one of the most toxic sites in Africa. Its air and soil are polluted with chemicals while child labour, poverty and criminal gangs are endemic.
The Basel Convention to Limit E-Waste Transport
The problems associated with shipping e-waste to developing and third world countries for recycling led to an international treaty known as the Basel Convention, which limits the export of e-waste and hazardous waste between nations, more specifically from developed to less developed countries. The treaty has effectively brought the recycling industry to the point where the two biggest factors influencing how e-waste is processed are cost and regulation.
The Origins of Extended Producer Responsibility in Europe
While e-waste is handled very differently in third world countries compared to the West, there are also marked differences within Western countries in the way they legislate the recycling industry for environmental and health and safety concerns.
Europe, for example, is where many of the original and existing recycling regulations (and now e-waste regulations) came from. Sweden and Germany, in particular, led the way in deciding that industries that made and sold products should take responsibility for the waste stage rather than municipalities and consumers. This shifted the emphasis from a focus on facilities to a focus on products and led to the introduction of the term Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in Europe in 1990.
Through EPR, governments shift responsibility for waste from municipalities to the industries that make or sell the products and require certain diversion targets for the waste. EPR programs soon spread from Europe to countries around the world. Sometimes the terms “product stewardship” or “shared stewardship” are used synonymously with Extended Producer Responsibility.
From Europe to North America
While European e-waste regulation is more front end based in that it tries to influence the design of products through legislation and regulation, North America approaches the topic from the other direction with a punitive approach that emphasizes the cost to recycle e-waste.
Essentially, European e-waste regulations let designers know they must design products in a specific way that is good for recycling or the government may not allow you to sell it,” says Clayton Miller, Vice President, Business Development,Quantum Lifecycle Partners. “In North America, however, governments don’t focus much on design, but rather the back-end costs of recycling the end of life products.”
The U.S. does not have a unified program of e-waste regulation as individual states retain responsibility in this area. While 25 states plus the District of Columbia currently have e-waste laws, they represent a full range of approaches to e-waste regulation from a fully funded system in California to a more minimal approach in other states.
The Canadian Approach to E-Waste Recycling
In Canada, a national not-for-profit organization, the Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA), oversees government-approved provincial e-waste programs with the exception of Alberta, which is regulated by the Alberta Recycling Management Authority (ARMA). All manufacturers, retailers, distributors and other suppliers of regulated electronic products selling their products in a Canadian province are required to be active in an approved product stewardship plan.
The electronic products covered under the various provincial stewardship programs have expanded in phases. All programs started with phase 1, which included office and home electronics like computers, printers, monitors and TV’s. Phase 2 included home audio and telecommunications equipment such as stereos and phones.
Provinces have expanded programs at different rates and BC is currently the most advanced. They implemented phase 5 in 2015 and almost every item with a battery or plug is now covered under a provincial recycling program. All other provinces except Alberta have expanded to phase 2, with most provinces considering phase 3 and 4 expansion in the next few years. Alberta, which instituted Canada’s first provincial electronics recycling program, has not expanded past phase 1, although this is expected to change soon.
On the industry side, the non-profit Electronics Products Stewardship Canada (EPSC) was founded in 2003 and is comprised of the 27 leading electronics manufacturers. The EPSC mandate is to represent manufacturers’ interests in shaping policy as well as the development of electronics recycling solutions.
Going Forward With E-Waste Regulation
As the problems posed by e-waste continue to grow, governments around the world will continue to grapple with the best ways to handle the issue. To date, it has been Western countries that have come up with the broadest-ranging solutions to protect both workers and the environment. We must encourage countries in the developing world to make strides as quickly as they can for the benefit of the planet.
If you have any questions regarding current e-waste policies in Ontario, or would like to schedule a free pickup for electronics, contact Quantum today.