Quirks and Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

Let's scale the e-waste mountain

World e-waste tops 44 million tonnes
A woman dismantles a broken air-conditioning unit to sell its parts as scrap, outside a tenement house at Dongxiaokou village in Beijing in 2014. Researchers estimate about 20 per cent of e-waste is properly recycled. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

As more people worldwide join the information and digital society, and the lifetimes of devices decreases, electronic waste is piling up, posing a new environmental threat. But a new report shows how our discarded devices are a valuable resource worth billions.

Worldwide last year, the total amount of electronic waste reached 44.7 million tonnes, according to the United Nations University Global E-Waste Monitor 2017. That's almost 9 Great Pyramids of Giza, 4,500 Eiffel Towers, or 1.23 million fully loaded 18-wheelers that would form a line from New York to Bangkok and back.

Only about 20 per cent of that waste is recycled.

Asia is the biggest producer of e-waste. While Canada and the U.S. are also huge consumers of devices, we have legislation in place to recycle them — although many still end up in landfills.

Electronic waste encompasses more than cell phones and computers. It also includes old refrigerators, air conditioners, small equipment and even lamps. In many parts of the world, mountains of dead equipment are growing higher, releasing heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium, plus harmful chemicals such as CFCs, flame retardants, and more toxic gases when these products are incinerated.

An employee dismantles parts of discarded computers and other electronics for recycling at the East African Compliant Recycling near Nairobi, Kenya, in 2014. Accessing valuable metals from e-waste provides jobs. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

The authors of the report say proper recycling of e-waste would do more than just reduce the burden on landfills and cut down on pollution; these piles of e-trash are literally gold mines of resources that could be worth 55 billion Euros ($83 billion Cdn). Laptops and flat-screen televisions contain recyclable plastics along with valuable copper, silver, aluminum, palladium, platinum, and, yes, gold.

Of course accessing those materials means processing the waste to take the components apart and separate materials, which involve labour. Waste technology is harvested under dangerous conditions by people living in poverty who have no other options.

In addition to addressing those work conditions, there are a number of other challenges must be overcome to scale the e-waste mountain. The first is effective legislation. Even then, it has to be policed and enforced, which is not always easy, especially in countries with large populations. It will take costly investment in recycling facilities, but as the demand for precious metals goes up, it should pay off in the long term.

The electronics industry has made billions providing us with amazing products with a revolutionary impact. (Larry Gitnick/CBC)

Manufacturers have a role to play by making it easier to reduce waste by standardizing common components such as power supply cords and chargers, so all you need to replace are components — not necessarily the entire device.

The electronics industry has made billions providing us with amazing products, and we continue to buy them every time a new one shows up. Their impact on the world has been revolutionary.

Now they are having a negative impact on the planet and it is time for everyone involved to take responsibility for what happens to devices at the end of their useful lives.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.