A resource in waste

From the August 2021 print edition

In our current linear, consumption-based economy we move on quickly from old products that were once shiny and new. Old being a relative term in IT, the average laptop only lasts for five years before it’s relegated to e-waste. E-waste is the informal term for electronic products (e-products) that have reached their “end-of-life.” Common e-waste products include computers, televisions, copiers, fax machines, cell phones and printers.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that about 50 million tonnes of e-waste are produced globally each year.

Of those 50 million tonnes, only 15 to 20 per cent is recycled; the rest ends up in landfills and incinerators. The 80 to 85 per cent of unrecycled e-waste is both a liability and a resource as valuable materials can be extracted from products at their end-of-life. Unrecycled e-waste that is disposed of through landfills and incinerators can have serious impacts on the environment; toxic materials such as heavy metals, flame retardants, and other pollutants can leach into the soil, water and air and cause irreparable damage to the surrounding ecosystems. The obvious risks aside, the opportunity cost of unrecycled e-product materials like palladium, gold, silver, copper, platinum and other recoverable materials was estimated at over $80 billion dollars in 2017.

Recycling centres
Of all e-products designated for recycling, it is estimated that 50 to 80 per cent of it is exported to nations such as China, India and the Philippines where health and safety standards may not be as strong and direct handling of toxic materials may take place. In some unregulated recycling centres, e-products are sorted and separated for their materials through chemical processes and incineration, which releases pollutants that are harmful to local communities and workers. There are safe, local methods for recovering these materials through certified recycling facilities that provide e-products with a second chance at life and minimize hazards for workers. In these regulated recycling centres, e-products are dismantled and sorted into plastics and metals. In most recycling processes a magnet can be used to recover valuable metals, and water separation technology can separate metals from plastics. Plastics are shredded mechanically, circuit boards are disassembled, metals are sorted, and it is all sold as raw materials to make new electronics. While it may seem a simple solution to recycle our e-products responsibly, the outcome is often decided during the design phase.

Recycling potential is affected by the quality of materials in the original product. In addition to the growing mountain of e-waste, the quality of e-products is declining, which means reuse of some materials is not feasible. For example, high-quality post-consumer plastics are in short supply, and it is cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin or lower quality plastics.

Thus, if you are in the market for a new e-product be sure to select electronic products that align with your values. Choosing ecolabel-certified products that take the total cost of ownership and the quality and repairability of a product into account will decide the future of your product’s lifecycle. The most sustainable IT companies according to Forbes are Apple, HP, FairPhone, Microsoft and Samsung, and you can find specific product rankings through EPEAT, TCO Certified and other ecolabels including the well-known EnergyStar, China SEPA, Taiwan Green Mark, Korea Eco Label, and Blue Angel. By identifying companies that use these ecolabels and practice transparency in their supply chains, you can avoid vague, irrelevant, and misleading sustainability claims, otherwise known as “greenwashing.”
There are certain RFP specifications that will drive the market toward more sustainable production and ease your e-waste woes before they begin. Consider asking your suppliers to disclose the carbon footprint of their company, services and goods. Ask what amount of post-consumer recycled plastics are incorporated into their products, and whether they repair their products. Lastly, consider the barrier that data security poses to recycling e-products. An experienced IT vendor might offer a reuse program
or data wiping services.

Retiring products
When it comes time to retire your cell phone, desktop or printer, the first step is to determine whether someone else might find your product useful, or whether your product can be repaired. Several companies like Apple, Samsung, Lenovo, HP, and Dell provide services to extend the lifespan of their products such as free repairs, take-back programs, tax-receipts for donations of used e-products or credits for donated items and partnerships with large-scale donation centres.

The Electronic Products Recycling Association (ERPA) is a not-for-profit that operates regulated recycling programs across Canada and is a great resource if you choose to recycle your e-product. There are nine provinces in Canada that currently host e-product recycling programs, which can be found through EPRA and have options for product donation and recycling. Recycling your e-product responsibly could provide more high-quality, post-consumer recycled materials and give your e-product
a second chance at the IT lifecycle.

When we consider the options in place for recycling e-products, plastic and materials waste become an

Erin Unger is program manager for the Canadian Collaboration for Sustainable Procurement.

untapped resource rather than a threat. Suppliers can access post-consumer recycled products and incorporate them into their products but currently the average amount of post-consumer recycled content used by electronics manufacturers is only two-to-three per cent. By purchasing from ecolabel certified manufacturers and recycling our unusable e-products responsibly, we can drive those numbers up. When it comes to the future of e-product disposal, you are in the driver’s seat.