An Afterthought for Electronics

All next week in the Great Hall at BCIT Burnaby Campus, the World Computer Exchange (WCE) will be collecting functioning used computers and donating them to communities and families in need. To kick off the donation drive, and get you thinking about why this is important, we thought we’d share this essay written by BCIT student Brandon Ngyuen about the perils of E-waste.

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Photo courtesy: Flickr.com (jseattle)

How many times have you switched your old outdated electronics for the newest and coolest device? I’m sure many of us have done this without too much thought at least once or twice: switching out the old analog CRT screens for the latest digital flat screen television, or maybe switching out your phone for the latest high tech rectangle from Apple. The ever increasing rate of technological advancement has shortened the expected lifespan of electronics, and has changed the way the world treats these devices. And this change wasn’t just felt by consumers like us in developed countries. In developing countries like Nigeria, the old Nigerian Prince Email scams have been joined by another illegal enterprise. These new illegal activities all stem from people like us in developed countries constantly replacing technology. Because when you throw away your old electronic device, it moves into the next cycle of its life. What was once the cutting edge of electronic enterprise, has now become E-waste.

E-waste is comprised of broken and unwanted electronic equipment from both consumers and industries. All of these devices contain valuable materials in their components, and many of these materials can be salvaged. Harmless materials such as gold and copper usually reside in electronics along with more harmful chemicals and heavy metals like flame retardants and mercury. These harmful substances are where the dangers of electronic waste reside, and why you should be careful of how you handle the electronic devices you no longer want.

So let’s say you have an electronic device which you wish to dispose of. If its poor silicon soul is lucky, it will be resold and reused by somebody else. And barring that, it will hopefully be recycled. Some electronics may even find reincarnation through reuse as raw material in newer devices. British Columbia has been trying to increase the awareness of electronics recycling for some time now, and offer recycling and disposal options which can handle everything from batteries and televisions, to industrial equipment. But if the fates are cruel, then your electronic device could be cast off into the landfill, or worse.

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If the electronic device ends up in a landfill, it will most likely be either buried or incinerated. Burying E-waste has proven an ineffective means of disposal. Many harmful chemicals and heavy metals contained within electronics can leach into the surrounding environments. And through absorption into groundwater, these toxic substances can contaminate vast areas and linger for years. Incineration is not much better. Many of the toxic materials inside E-waste can be vaporized in an incinerator. And alongside the smoke, they float up into the atmosphere. This can lead to increases in greenhouse gas levels, and even health issues in nearby towns (Pradhan, 2013).

But if you do try to recycle your devices, you must be aware of the dangers of choosing the wrong companies. Most legitimate recycling companies will recycle the material in a safe and proper manner. BC has a list of recycling programs which meet their set of qualifications, and your electronics should be safe in their hands. Encorp Pacific, Call2Recycle, and many other trusted organizations can be found on the Recycling Council of British Columbia website. However, if you want to go with an alternative company, maybe to save time or a few bucks, you have to be careful.

Certain recycling companies have been found to send their E-waste to groups overseas. One of the most notorious countries in the illegal E-waste trade is Nigeria (Terada, 2012). There, foreign countries pay Nigerian groups to take the E-waste off their hands. This black-market E-waste is rarely reused or recycled properly. Mountains of plastic from E-waste are shovelled into landfills where they are incinerated. And components containing valuable materials are usually dumped in certain locations for poorer families to scavenge for recyclable materials. Children are commonly found sifting through toxic sludge for precious metals, and whole villages work to break down outdated appliances. These operations have no safety regulations, protective equipment, or proper supervision from any of the groups responsible for the E-waste.

The groups responsible for illegal E-waste activities are mostly directly related to international criminal groups. These criminal organizations mainly target developing countries in Africa and Asia due to weaker regulation and rampant corruption (Terada, 2012). To fight them, strict international regulations must be placed to limit the amount of illegal E-waste that can flow into developing countries like Nigeria. But due to its international nature, these laws can be ineffective at controlling illegal dumping activities. So what do we need to combat black-market E-waste? Constant monitoring and certification of legitimate recycling companies and the persecution of illegal E-waste activities must be done at home in Canada to ensure E-waste stays out of illegal channels.

You can help fight against illegal E-waste too. You do not have to rely on the governments and big organizations to place rules and regulations- rules and regulations that might do little more than scold countries involved. You can help protect the environment, and children in the developing world through a few simple actions: Reselling unused electronics or donating devices to charities, recycling your electronics through respectable companies, and by simply reducing the amount of electronics you purchase and throw away. You don’t have to be a superhero to stand up for human rights, fight organized crime, or to save the planet. All it takes is a little thought about how you treat your unwanted electronics.

— BRANDON NGUYEN (2nd year BCIT Electrical Engineering)

Click here to  find out more about the WCE donation drive (May 5-9) as well as what they will accept.

 

Sources:
T. Pradhan, “E-Waste generation and management in India,” Recent Research in Science & Technology, pp. 83-87, 2013.
C. Terada, “Recycling Electronic Wastes in Nigeria: Putting,” Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights, pp. 154-172, 2012.