The term “WEEE” (for “Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment”) — often called “e-waste” — covers everything from video game consoles and computers to cell phones, digital cameras and CRT or flat-screen TVs. With Ontario poised to introduce an e-waste stewardship program in March, a national system (admittedly patchwork) is about emerge in Canada to deal with this vexing and fast-growing waste stream.
We must hope that Ontario — the country’s largest e-waste generator — learns from the pros and cons of programs in other jurisdictions and capitalizes on an historic opportunity to “get it right.”
E-waste data are always shocking. In 2004, Statistics Canada estimated that sales of new electronic devices topped $880 million. And we’re replacing these gizmos faster and faster; the average Canadian home computer is now just 2.5 years old, down from 2.7 in 2006.
Canadians generate over 140,000 tonnes of e-waste annually (70,000 tonnes in Ontario alone), roughly 75 per cent of which ends up in landfill (with much of the remainder exported overseas, e.g., to China). Only nine per cent of Ontario e-waste was collected for reuse or recycling in 2004. This is appalling, given that WEEE often contains toxic heavy metals and persistent, bioaccumulative hazardous substances.
Canada may lack a national e-waste program, but the CCME has agreed on Canada-wide “Principles for Electronics Product Stewardship” and Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have collaborated with 10 northeastern American states to establish “Model Electronic Recycling Legislation.”
Alberta established a WEEE management program in 2004, administered through the Alberta Recycling Management Authority (ARMA). The Saskatchewan Waste Electronic Equipment Program (SWEEP) came into effect in February 2007. British Columbia implemented the province-wide “Return-It Electronics” program in August 2007. Other provinces are in various stages of proposing or implementing e-waste stewardship programs, including Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Ontario designated WEEE in 2004 under the Waste Diversion Act and asked Waste Diversion Ontario (WDO) to develop a diversion plan. On September 20, 2007, Ontario Electronic Stewardship (OES) was established as the Industry Funding Organization (IFO) responsible for coordinating the program with WDO. OES and WDO will present their program plan to the province’s environment minister on March 31, 2008.
As written, the draft plan should meet most of the environment minister’s written requirements. It includes ambitious collection and diversion targets, convenience for consumers, and public education/outreach campaigns. Most important is tracking and monitoring, vendor qualification standards and vendor audits, including third-party auditing of downstream processors. Independent confirmation is crucial to ensure that unprocessed e-waste is not shipped to Third World countries.
Designated stewards (brand owners, assemblers, and first importers) will finance all program costs — including education and research — through OES. This is expected to be at least $48 million annually, which may be recovered through advance disposal fees when new electronics are sold. How these various fees are calculated and displayed at the cash register could be very controversial. Companies have the alternative of providing their own take-back and recycling programs, as some of them already do (e.g., HP, Lexmark, etc.).
OES is proposing a weight-based handling fee of $165 per tonne (or approximately $54 per full pallet) sent for processing to approved processors. The existing private sector WEEE management companies (Ontario has some world class facilities) want to be integrated into the system, not sidelined. The plan “could favour a monopolistic system controlled by OES based largely on municipal collection and limited processing options,” worries Dennis Maslo, a partner with Computation Ltd in Toronto. The independent processors want a set of standards to which they must adhere, not a single entity controlling the market at the behest of large equipment manufacturers and big-box retailers.
During the consultation period, the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (CIELAP) released a new report, Waste Bytes! Diverting Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment in Ontario. The report contains 16 recommendations for Ontario that are largely consistent with the draft program document. However, CIELAP wants to see government procurement and other policies that encourage more “design for environment” (DfE) than the draft plan promises. CIELAP seeks a landfill ban on e-waste and more emphasis on the 3Rs hierarchy (including more vendor take-back programs and repair of equipment so that it can be reused), plus regulatory requirements for stewards to reduce the toxins in electronic products.
The concern is that in an IFO-administered system, consumers could pay advance disposal fees simply to fund the recycling of ever-growing volumes of e-waste while equipment manufacturers and brand owners conduct “business as usual” with no pressure to make upstream DfE-type changes that reduce waste in the first place.
More than commodities like used oil, tires and newsprint, computers and other electronic devices lend themselves to design changes that facilitate toxics reduction, reuse and recycling; true product stewardship should be about more than simply funding recycling. A free and fair market must also be maintained for e-waste collectors and processors, large and small. We hope to see this reflected in the final plan.
NOTE: Readers can download Ontario’s draft WEEE plan and the CIELAP report under Posted Documents atwww.solidwastemag.com
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at email@example.com