Day 6

'Wasted': Why recycling isn't enough when it comes to e-waste

In Part 3 of our series 'Wasted', we examine our love of shiny, new gadgets and the role manufacturers should play in reducing e-waste.
Discarded cellular phone components are seen inside a workshop in the township of Guiyu in China's southern Guangdong province on June 10, 2015. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Welcome to the third instalment of 'Wasted', a Day 6 series about our refuse and what we do with it. In this week's episode, we're taking a look at electronic waste.

In the digital age, we're inundated by gadgets — each one newer, faster, shinier than before. Drooling over the iPhone X? Or maybe you're in the market for a voice-activated 'smart speaker' like Amazon's Echo? 

But what happens to all the products rendered obsolete by the latest crop of electronics?

Many municipalities have recycling programs in place for some electronics, but generally e-waste is still a big problem, much of it ending up in landfills, with components that don't break down. 

According to the Restart Project, between one-fourth and one-third of e-waste (by weight) goes to landfill instead of being recycled. (Instagram/@restartproject)

E-waste includes everything from refrigerators and TVs, to mobile phones and computers. 

The Global E-Waste Monitor, a UN report measuring the amount of e-waste generated around the world, notes that 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated in 2016. That's up eight per cent from the group's previous report in 2014.

In Canada, the Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA) helps organize e-waste collection programs across the country. 

If we think about the hierarchy of reduce, reuse and recycle, we want to make sure that first we're reducing the waste.- Cliff Hacking, EPRA president and CEO

"The collection sites that EPRA has across Canada are growing on a regular basis," notes EPRA president and CEO Cliff Hacking. "From 2015 to the end of 2017, they grew by about 40 per cent."

That's a significant jump, but Hacking says that while it's a step in the right direction that more e-waste is being recycled, there's still much more progress to be made.

"The e-waste collection program is always to be a last resort," he says. "If we think about the hierarchy of reduce, reuse and recycle, we want to make sure that first we're reducing the waste — the number of components that go into materials that we purchase."

"Then the next tranche of what our directives tell us, which is to reuse; and then only after the natural life of the materials has expired, should it then go to the recycling process that we're responsible for," explains Hacking.


Packed electronic waste is seen outside at a recycling warehouse in Mexico City, Mexico on August 18, 2017. ( Henry Romero/Reuters)

How recycling comes up short

Josh Lepawsky, a geography professor at Memorial University in St. John's, N.L., studies e-waste and where it ends up.

"Electronics waste recycling is an industrial recycling process. That means using large industrial machinery to sort it into different categories, and eventually to destroy it by shredding it into its materials, and then a process of sorting it into finer and finer categories of different metals, plastics, glass, copper or aluminum, [which] would be baled up and sold on the world market for materials to go back into production," Lepawsky explains.

While it may make us feel better about tossing out the old electronics we no longer need or want, there's a major drawback to e-waste recycling — it requires an enormous amount of energy.

"As individual consumers or households, we might have this sense that we put our electronics in a recycling bin and then some sort of magic happens and it returns to us in a newly manufactured product," Lepawsky says.

"But the reality of industrial recycling is that it's a highly energy-intensive process and in some ways adds to the overall energy footprint of our devices."

An e-waste bucket seen during a Recycling Days event on September 18, 2016 in Warsaw, Poland. (Karol Serewis/Getty Images)

Who's to blame?

Post-consumer impact is surprisingly small relative to the amount of energy used — and waste produced — during manufacturing, Lepawsky notes, pointing out that 90 to 98 per cent of that waste occurs even before we purchase a device like a cellphone.

We as consumers have very little power to change what matters, which is upstream.- Josh Lepawsky, Memorial University 

But are companies like Apple and other electronics makers to blame for constantly releasing updated products to replace previous ones that still work perfectly well? 

"We as consumers have very little power to change what matters, which is upstream," Lepawsky says. 

"You and I can choose between a very wide range of models and different functionalities of devices. But the underlying engineering, the materials, how they are put together, the ease with which they can be repaired or not, their overall durability or lack thereof, these are not things that our choice in the store has much sway over."

Consumers have been able to advocate for change in other major sectors, Lepawsky says, pointing to how we now take for granted that cars are durable and can be repaired over their lifetime.

Institutions like Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration also have regulations requiring that companies' products meet certain standards before they are manufactured and put on the market.

"Now, if we can do that in those multi-billion-dollar industries, there is no reason we can't do it in another one like electronics," he argues.

As someone who studies e-waste, Lepawsky can't bear to throw his own electronics away — including those outdated cellphones.

"I have a little museum in my office. In fact, I bought an old cellphone once in Singapore a few years ago, the old brick kind you might remember from the '80s. I got it for 20 dollars in Singapore at a flea market," he says with a laugh.


The Restart Project, a grassroots initiative begun in London, England, came up with the idea to hold community parties to teach people to fix their broken or old electronics. (The Restart Project)

Repair and reuse

As researchers like Lepawsky and other environmental advocates around the world study solutions to cope with the growing issue of e-waste, The Restart Project, one of many grassroots efforts to divert electronics from landfills, came up with an increasingly popular way to curb e-waste — they try to repair electronics and extend their lifespan through community Restart Parties. 

The best way to reduce the impact that we have on the environment ... is to make sure that we can use the gadgets that we already have in our pockets for as long as possible.- Restart Project co-founder Ugo Vallauri

Founded five years ago in London, England by Janet Gunter and Ugo Vallauri, the parties have expanded around the world, including to Montreal

"Both of us had extensive experience working in development regions across Africa, Latin America and Asia, and learning how people were always trying to give a second chance to products when they were failing," Vallauri says.

"We got quite disillusioned when getting back to Europe. We noticed when something was going wrong, people would easily give up on these products — all kinds of small electronics —  and move on to buy the next big thing."

At Restart Parties, people can bring in their broken or slow electronics and work with an expert to open up the device and learn how to fix it, prolonging its life. Along the way, the Restart Project has kept track of the repairs and updates that have been needed, from the physical elements to outdated operating systems.

"The best way to have a proactive role in preventing unnecessary waste, and reducing the impact that we have on the environment with our electronics, is really to make sure that we can use as long as possible all the gadgets that we already have in our pockets," Vallauri says. 

"By doing that, then realizing that the design of products is crucial in ensuring that repairs are not too complicated."

"And that a product will be given a second or third lease on life is the reason that we started to collect more evidence ... so that we can make bolder claims at policy level, and reaching out to manufacturers as well to ensure future generations of products are even more repairable and allow us to keep them in circulation for much longer."



To hear the full interview with professor Josh Lepawsky, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

Click here for Part One and Two of 'Wasted,' our series about trash — how we generate it, what happens to it, and how we can generally be better at dealing with garbage.