January 1, 2007

Strong domestic stewardship programs deemed most effective for global e-waste management

By: Mark Sabourin

Mounds of electronic waste from developed countries, including Canada, are landing on some of the world's poorest shores. There, valuable metals are extracted, and the remaining toxic mess is often left unprotected to contaminate the environment.

The problem posed by the unsafe export of e-waste was an important focus of the 8th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Basel Convention, which was held in Nairobi following the more heavily-publicized climate change meetings of last November.

The meeting concluded with the Nairobi Declaration, a global call for more concerted action on the management of electronic waste. Though international co-operation will be part of the solution (fighting illegal trafficking in e-waste), the most effective action countries can take is domestic: building a strong vendor take-back or stewardship infrastructure, and encouraging manufacturers to pursue more environmentally benign design.

"Canada recognizes that e-waste is a global problem," says Joe Wittwer, head of the regulatory operations section of Environment Canada's waste management division. Canadian officials worked hard "behind the scenes" to help forge the Nairobi Declaration, he says.

Canadian controls on the export of e-waste were strengthened in November 2005 with new regulations governing the export of hazardous wastes and recyclables, says Wittwer. But it's not a foolproof system. To be captured by the regulation, a waste or recyclable must exhibit a hazardous property.

"Your computer or your computer screen sitting on a desk in front of you is not hazardous," by that definition, he explains. However, if that computer is crushed or ground down to economize on space for shipment, it becomes hazardous because if surface area has been increased and toxic metals can now be released into the environment.

Therefore, the export of unprocessed e-waste, ostensibly perhaps for refurbishment or re-use, would not be captured by the Canadian regulatory regime, Wittwer admits.

However, a new provision added to the regulations includes a tacit recognition of the recipient country's definition of hazardous waste. If the importing country defines unprocessed e-waste as hazardous, Canada will do so as well for the purposes of export to that country and will impose Canadian waste export regulations on that shipment.

Despite those provisions, the Canadian regulatory net is one through which many a computer would fall. Wittwer agrees that the most effective solution is-and the Nairobi Declaration implicitly suggests-a domestic e-waste processing infrastructure that removes the economic incentive to export.

It's not an easy problem to solve, says David Betts, president and CEO of Electronics Products Stewardship Canada, an industry-led organization that is championing the sound management in Canada of domestic e-waste.

"We've written a very comprehensive recycler standard," says Betts. That standard is now being followed by Alberta's electronics recycling program, and will be part of the upcoming programs in Saskatchewan and BC. "If we get it, it's for recycling. Period. And we do not allow any exporting. The standard includes an audit trail that follows not only the original hardware, but also the various hazardous components. "If you're recycling something to extract the copper, then we follow it right down to where the copper is going."

Programs are also under development in Ontario and Nova Scotia. "My expectation is that every program that's rolled out across Canada in the next couple of years will have, if not that [standard] exactly, then one very close to it."

More information on e-waste product stewardship programs is available on the Electronics Products Stewardship Canada Web site, www.epsc.ca.

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