E-Waste Explained: What Is It, Its Environmental Impact and What You Can Do

By Julie Hall, Free Geek Toronto volunteer.

What’s E-Waste?

E-waste, or electronic waste, refers to discarded or end-of-life electronic devices. 

E-waste includes mobiles, laptops/desktops, and computer accessories, such as keyboards and speakers. It can also include televisions, digital cameras, or even lightbulbs; any item that requires electricity to operate.

Why is e-waste an issue? 

E-waste can be problematic due to how electronic devices are manufactured, and then disposed of. 

Manufacturing electronic devices 

Electronic devices are made from a mix of many materials, including gold, silver, copper, lithium, and cobalt. Manufacturing these devices includes extensive mining to acquire these materials, creating often negative impacts on the environment and communities where extractions occur.

Disposing e-waste 

When disposed of properly, e-waste can have minimal environmental impact. However, only 20% of e-waste is properly dismantled and recycled. As e-waste contains hazardous chemicals and toxic heavy metals, these improperly disposed of items can then leak into soil and the water supply with a detrimental impact on the surrounding environment and food production.

From a global perspective, e-waste can also impact developing and low-income countries more severely, as developed countries frequently export their e-waste to developing countries.

Developing countries may lack regulations and resources to manage this imported e-waste, with people working at e-waste recycling plants often lacking the protective equipment to handle these dangerous materials and may also inhale dangerous fumes. Canada has contributed to this issue by exporting our e-waste to the Philippines.

This issue of e-waste is growing; e-waste volumes are increasing globally with the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP) indicating that e-waste has surged by 21% from 2012 to 2019. E-waste from 2020 weighed as much as 350 cruise ships placed end-to-end.

What can we do about e-waste?

Addressing the issue of e-waste is complex, involving many stakeholders from manufacturers, governments, to global organisations. 

Globally, there are several frameworks aimed at addressing e-waste. The Basel Convention, ratified by Canada in 1992, aims to reduce e-waste production, as well as ensure e-waste is disposed of close to the source of generation. This convention bans countries from exporting their e-waste to another country.

Locally, the Resource Productivity and Recovery Authority (RPRA) regulates e-waste in Ontario with the aim to keep resources in the economy as long as possible. Through administering the Resource Recovery and Circular Economy Act, RPRA ensures that producers are individually accountable and financially responsible for their products and packaging once consumers dispose of them.

As individual consumers, we can all take a few steps to help reduce e-waste: 

  • Consume less: although we all understand the allure of a new device, think thoughtfully about whether you need a new electronics device. Research the options of any new device to ensure it’s an item that will fit your life for the long term. 
  • Extend the life of your devices: take care of your current devices by using protective cases, keeping the device clean, installing antivirus software, and installing software updates frequently. 
  • Buy second hand: need a new keyboard or mice? Buy second hand items to reduce the production of new items. Be sure to check out items at the Free Geek Toronto shop.

Recycle: if your electronic device has reached its end-of-life, recycle your devices at an e-waste recycling facility. You can find your closest e-waste recycling facility here. You can also donate your items to Free Geek Toronto. Anything that can’t be refurbished and sold by Free Geek Toronto is properly recycled if the materials allow for it.

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