What to do about e-waste

From the April 2024 print edition

It’s hard to overstate the benefits that technology has brought us. These include increased productivity for workers, a less onerous workday, greater organizational efficiency, and easier communication.

Michael Power is editor of Supply Professional magazine.

But more technology has also led to an increase in the waste we produce when we discard our gadgets and electronics. In fact, UN agencies have recently warned that our efforts to recycle this e-waste aren’t keeping up with the amount of junk we produce.

Those agencies define “e-waste” as discarded devices with a plug or battery. This can include items like cellphones, laptop computers, televisions, and ovens. Incidentally, waste from electric vehicles falls into a separate category.

According to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union and research arm UNITAR, we managed to generate 62 million tons of e-waste in 2022. And according to one study from the University of Waterloo, Canada alone was responsible for almost a million tonnes of e-waste in 2020.

Of the 62-million tons the globe produced, metals like copper, gold, and iron made up half of that. Another 17 million tons came from plastics, while the 14 million remaining tons was comprised of things like composite materials and glass. This waste contains hazardous elements like mercury.

We’re not doing enough to deal with all this waste. In 2022, for example, only 22 per cent of the e-waste we generated was properly collected and recycled. At the same time, the UN anticipates that amount will drop to 20 per cent by 2030. But we’re not turning back the clock anytime soon to a time when we used fewer electronic products. Quite the opposite, as we’ll likely see more consumption of electronic goods over the next few decades. We can’t reverse the “electronification” of the world.

This is clearly bad for our environment. What can we do about this growing challenge? While our reliance on electronics will persist, we should reduce consumption by producing and using products with longer lifecycles. Raising awareness among consumers about the problems posed by e-waste can also help.

Better repair options for devices and e-waste management infrastructure is useful. Here in Canada, we have some great facilities to deal with e-waste, for example the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. According to Environment Canada, we also have over 150 facilities across the country that process e-waste.

There are also organizations to which companies and government agencies can donate their used electronics when no longer needed. If items can’t be given away, ensure they are recycled or disposed of responsibly. Check out websites like recyclemycell.ca or recyclemyelectronics.ca to see what options are available.