The special case of e-waste

Published Tuesday, April 30, 2013 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

When the computer age arrived a few decades ago, it brought tools and capabilities our forefathers could barely have imagined.  Unfortunately, it also introduced a new word to our vocabulary: e-waste, the all-encompassing term we’ve come to associate with unneeded, broken or obsolete electronics.  What’s the eco-conscious consumer supposed to do with the stuff?

Mountains of e-junk
Electronic waste has become a huge global issue.  According to the UN, as much as 50 million tonnes are produced globally every year.  In New Brunswick alone, it’s estimated that over 3500 tonnes of televisions and computer equipment are discarded annually – enough to fill a lineup of tractor trailers over five kilometers long.

Where does all that e-waste come from?  Some of it is stuff that legitimately breaks or wears out.  But the vast majority is equipment that works fine but has become outmoded thanks to newer, faster or flashier models.  Who hasn’t upgraded to a nicer phone, computer or television before the old one wore out?  The practice of designing and manufacturing stuff that goes out of fashion before it wears out is called planned obsolescence.  Aside from generating a lot of sales for electronics companies, it sure results in a lot of e-waste.

Noxious
E-waste is of special concern because it’s not just ordinary junk.  It contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, arsenic and chromium that can leach out of landfills, contaminate surrounding environments and harm human health.  Yet the landfill is exactly where much e-waste has historically ended up.  As recently as three years ago, only about a quarter of the televisions and computer equipment discarded in the US were recycled.

In fairness, such lamentable statistics are not entirely the fault of apathetic consumers.  In developed countries, e-waste is one of the fastest growing streams of trash, and programs to recycle the stuff haven’t sprung up quite as fast.  Fortunately, things are happening now.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
It’s widely accepted that the best way to reduce e-waste is to make it the responsibility of those who produce it – in other words, electronics manufacturers.  The logic is simple: if manufacturers know that they are responsible for taking back their products, they will design and manufacture them to be recycled easily, thoroughly and inexpensively.

Extended producer responsibility for electronics is already the norm in every province except New Brunswick.  The good news is that it was promised in the most recent throne speech and is coming soon.  Once implemented, EPR will require manufacturers to fund province-wide collection and recycling of electronics – a good thing. 

But what about right now?

Options
It’s important to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle e-waste, in that order.  Reduce means buying less, and using electronics until they wear out instead of upgrading constantly.

Reuse means donating your electronics to organizations that can use or refurbish them.  Computers for Schools refurbishes donated equipment for use in schools and non-profit organizations; whatever can’t be refurbished is recycled.  It’s provincewide; call 506 444 4501 to find the location nearest you. 

Resnet (www.resnet.nb.ca), a non-profit organization located in Edmundston, accepts all kinds of electronics from across NB.  Useful parts are extracted and leftovers are recycled.  Call 506 735 9140.

Atlantic E-waste Solutions (www.atlanticewaste.com), a small company that grew out of a school project on recycling, accepts electronics from across in NB at its facilities in Woodstock.  Call 506 476 6905.

And other recycling options are available in most of NB – but programs vary from location to location.  For example, e-waste can be dropped off anytime at Fundy (Crane Mountain), Westmoreland-Albert (Berry Mills), Northwest (Riviere-Verte), Nepisiguit-Chaleur (Allardville) and Southwest (Lawrence Station) landfills, and at the Acadian Peninsula transfer station in Tracadie-Sheila.

In most other areas of the province, special e-waste drop-off days are organized at convenient central locations; for example, in Beresford May 4; in Bathurst May 11; in Douglastown May 11; in Sussex May 25. 

If you live in the Fredericton region, unfortunately you’re in the only part of the province without e-waste recycling.  So the best strategy is to store the stuff in your garage or basement until recycling becomes available (hopefully soon) or drop it off at a neighbouring facility when your travels take you there.  E-waste is toxic, so it’s important to keep it out of the landfill.

(For readers outside New Brunswick: visit www.recyclemyelectronics.ca for a listing of recycling programs across Canada, or visit www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/ecycling/index.htm for information on recycling in the US.)

Questions?  Call your local Recycling Hotline for details for your area.

If mountains can be moved a shovelful at a time, mountains of e-waste can be prevented one piece at a time.  Please do your part: reduce, reuse and recycle your electronic waste.