E-waste Recycling the Canadian Experience

According to green activists our environment will be 3x more congested with e-waste by 2017. Even if it is not to be tripled, e-waste is growing in volumes – HUGE volumes. The reason why e-waste is increasing is that technology is growing fast and in an attempt to get better devices, we casually get rid of old electronics not long after purchasing them – the best examples being that of smartphones.

It’s also a legacy from the fact that electronics have become so sophisticated that there is a lot in them to go wrong! When one small element fails it often renders the device irritating or useless.

Take a look at the recycling figures for smartphones.

EwasteRecycling

E-waste is the old electronic goods that people simply give away to garbage trucks that are then dumped into landfill or similar sites. Electronics have a number of harmful elements that react with air and water to create the toxic problems of e-waste such as water, air and soil pollution as well as problems that affect human beings in the form of diseases.

Most of the cheaper batteries are lead based and when thrown into the garbage to end up at landfill, they easily react with water (rain or moisture) to seep and mix with underground water making it toxic then go on to polluting the soil and air where ever it was disposed by the garbage department.

Thus, everything that falls into electronics’ category, that you intend to throw away, is e-waste (electronic waste).  This includes computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones and so on. There are proper methods to dispose of electronic items. They should be handled differently than normal garbage.

Let us check out some of the most common elements found in computers, monitors and TVs etc. and how they affect human life.

The solder present on the motherboard of computers and TV contain high levels of lead. Even the glass panels of computer monitors contain lead and of course, the lead batteries contaminate air, water, and soil. If this contamination gets into the air, water and soil and is transferred to humans, it distorts the process of brain development, while posing danger to central nervous system and kidneys. Lead poisoning is among the most dangerous hazards of e-waste.

Other than lead, motherboards also have high levels of Mercury. Improper disposal may create skin and respiratory disorders. Mercury poisoning also causes acute brain damage.

The cables and PVC panels as well as the specialized glass, reacts with moisture and oxygen, creating a hazardous soil that may not be suitable for even building a home as the people breathing that air will suffer from reproduction development disorder and the malformation of body parts, including the brain. It also spoils the immune system. Stress, anxiety, and other mental problems can arise out of breathing air polluted with glass, PVC and other forms of plastic remains found in electronic items.

The motherboard circuits can cause lung cancer when you breathe air polluted by the fumes that are released when the elements degrade as the react to the moisture and create Beryllium. It is also responsible for skin diseases, including warts and certain forms of dangerous allergies.

EPRA (Electronic Products Recycling Association) a Canadian based non-profit organization dedicated to recycling e-wastes, states that in Quebec alone about 10,000 tonnes of electronic waste are produced, but recycling amounts to about only 1.3 kilograms per person. In comparison to Nova Scotia that approximately produces e-cycling waste of 5,000 tonnes of electronics that were recycled last year. That’s about five kilograms per person.

The Recycling Process

For the recycling process, Encorp Pacific Canada, a federally incorporated, not-for-profit, product Stewardship Corporation states that recycling of electronics involves processing to recover raw materials such as metals, glass and plastics.

Electronics are usually separated into the following categories:

Non-Hazardous Materials

  • Ferrous and non-ferrous materials, including steel, aluminum, copper, wires and cables, other metals (brass, bronze, metal fines), plastics, wood and glass (non-leaded). These will be sold to smelters for the production of raw materials.

Electronic scrap

  • Cables and wires, printed circuit boards (high, medium and low grade), components, including hard drives, chips and other electronic components.

Substances of Concern

  • Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT), leaded plasma display glass and other leaded glass, rechargeable batteries, non-rechargeable batteries, including alkaline, lead acid, and coin cell batteries on circuit boards, mercury bearing lamps and switches, components containing polychlorinated biphenyls, ink and toner cartridges.

Not all of recycling process of electronics is the same.  Below are the two processes currently undertaken by Canadian recyclers:

Process 1

  • Lead, zinc, cadmium, tin, germanium, indium and other elements that fume are captured and processed.
  • Silica, iron, and aluminum remain in a slag which is further converted into value added products for construction/cement industry.
  • Aluminum is also removed to be sent for further refining
  • Plastics, wood and other organics are used as fuel providing heat to the furnace and converted to steam. This steam is captured and used to heat process vessels.
  • Copper and circuit boards are being removed at shredding operations and will be sold to specialty metal refiners

Process 2

  • Display devices, such as TVs and computer monitors, are hand dismantled removing the leaded glass CRTs. Also, plastics, copper and circuit boards are also hand removed in this process and sent to downstream recyclers
  • Computers, computer mice, keyboards are sent through shredding processes whereby plastics are machine sorted.
  • Aluminum, copper and steel are sorted through a mix of hand sorting and machine sorting to be sent for further recycling.
  • Plastics are machine sorted and sent to downstream recyclers for further processors.

Not all of the recycling takes place locally. Some of it is shipped large distances to be turned into something that can be reused.

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E-waste recycling is definitely the way to dispose of irreparable items, but we also have to consider giving away items that still have life in them. Look for charities that reuse old electronics, or seriously consider living without some of them at all. The more we reduce, the less we have to recycle.

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