Reuse, Refurbish, Recycle

What is e-Waste?

E-waste (electronic waste) includes computers, entertainment electronics, mobile phones and other items that have been discarded by their original users. While there is no generally accepted definition of e-waste, in most cases e-waste consists of expensive and more or less durable products used for data processing, telecommunications or entertainment in private households and businesses.

Why is e-waste a problem?

E-waste is both valuable as source for secondary raw material, and toxic if treated and discarded improperly. Rapid technology change, low initial cost and even planned obsolescence have resulted in a fast growing problem around the globe. Technical solutions are available but in most cases a legal framework, a collection system, logistics and other services need to be implemented before a technical solution can be applied.

Due to lower environmental standards and working conditions in China and India, e-waste is being sent to these countries for processing – in most cases illegally. Bangalore in India and the Guiyu area in the Chaozhou region of China have e-waste processing areas. Uncontrolled burning and disposal are causing environmental problems due to the methods of processing the waste. Trade in e-waste is controlled by the Basel Convention.

E-waste is of concern largely due to the toxicity of some of the substances if processed improperly. The toxicity is due in part to lead, mercury, cadmium and a number of other substances. A typical computer monitor may contain more than 6% lead by weight. Up to thirty-six separate chemical elements are incorporated into e-waste items. The unsustainability of discarded electronics and computer technology is another reason for the need to recycle – or even better, re-use – e-waste.

E-waste presents difficulties for recycling due to the complexity of each item and lack of viable recycling systems. Many of the plastics used in electronic equipment contain flame retardants. These are generally halogens added to the plastic resin, making the plastics difficult to recycle.

Health hazards in E-waste

Computers and other electronic equipment are manufactured from materials found naturally as well as man-made. While some naturally occurring substances, such as chromium, are harmless in nature, their use in the manufacture of electronic equipment often results in compounds which are hazardous. These are highly toxic and especially harmful to human health and the environment if not disposed of carefully.

Arsenic is a poisonous metallic element which is present in dust and soluble substances. Chronic exposure to arsenic can lead to various diseases of the skin and decrease nerve conduction velocity and can cause lung cancer.

Barium is a metallic element that is used in sparkplugs, fluorescent lamps and "getters" in vacuum tubes. Being highly unstable in the pure form, it forms poisonous oxides when in contact with air. Short-term exposure to barium could lead to brain swelling, muscle weakness, damage to the heart, liver and spleen.

Beryllium has been classified as a human carcinogen since exposure to it can cause lung cancer. The primary health concern is inhalation of beryllium dust, fume or mist. Workers who are constantly exposed to beryllium, even in small amounts, and who become sensitised to it can develop Chronic Beryllium Disease (beryllicosis), a disease which primarily affects the lungs. Exposure to beryllium causes a form of skin disease that is characterised by poor wound healing and wart-like bumps. Studies have shown that people can still develop beryllium diseases many years after the last exposure.

Brominated flame retardants (BFR’s) The three main types of BFRS used in electronic and electrical appliances are Polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), Polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) and Tetrabromobisphenol - A (TBBPA). BFRs have been found in indoor dust and air through migration and evaporation from plastics. Combustion of halogenated case material and printed wiring boards at lower temperatures releases toxic emissions including dioxins which can lead to severe hormonal disorders. Major electronic manufacturers have begun to phase out BFRs because of its toxicity.

Cadmium components may have serious impacts on the kidneys. It is adsorbed through respiration and taken up with food. Due to the long half-life in the body, cadmium can easily be accumulated in amounts that cause symptoms of poisoning. Acute exposure to cadmium fumes causes flu-like symptoms of weakness, fever, headache, chills, sweating and muscular pain. The primary health risks of long term exposure are lung cancer and kidney damage.

CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) are compounds composed of carbon, fluorine, chlorine, and sometimes hydrogen. Used mainly in cooling units and insulation foam, it has been phased out because when released into the atmosphere, tit accumulates in the stratosphere and have a deleterious effect on the ozone layer. This results in increased incidence of skin cancer in humans and in genetic damage in many organisms.

Chromium and its oxides are widely used because of their high conductivity and anti corrosive properties. While some forms of chromium are non toxic, Chromium (VI) is easily absorbed in the human body and can produce various toxic effects within cells. Most chromium (VI) compounds are irritating to eyes, skin and mucous membranes. Chronic exposure to chromium (VI) compounds can cause permanent eye injury, unless properly treated. Chromium VI may also cause DNA damage.

Dioxins and furans are a family of chemicals comprising 75 different types of dioxin compounds and 135 related compounds known as furans. “Dioxins” refer to the family of compounds comprising polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs). Although never intentionally manufactured, dioxins form as unwanted by-products in the manufacture of some pesticides as well as during combustion. It is known to be highly toxic to animals and humans because it bio-accumulates in the body and can lead to malformations of the foetus, decreased reproduction and growth rates and cause impairment of the immune system among other things.

Lead is the fifth most widely used metal after iron, aluminium, copper and zinc. It is commonly used in the electrical and electronics industry in solder, lead-acid batteries, electronic components, cable sheathing, in the glass of CRTs etc. Short-term exposure to high levels of lead can cause vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, coma or even death. Other symptoms are appetite loss, abdominal pain, constipation, fatigue, sleeplessness, irritability and headache. Continued excessive exposure, as in an industrial setting, can affect the kidneys. It is particularly dangerous for young children because it can damage nervous connections and cause blood and brain disorders.

Mercury is one of the most toxic yet widely used metals in the production of electrical and electronic applications. It is a toxic heavy metal that bioaccumulates causing brain and liver damage if ingested or inhaled. In electronics and electrical appliances, mercury is highly concentrated in batteries, some switches and thermostats, and fluorescent lamps.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a class of organic compounds use in a variety of applications, including dielectric fluids for capacitors and transformers, heat transfer fluids and as additives in adhesives and plastics. PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals and to cause a number of serious non-cancer health effects in animals, including effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, endocrine system and other health effects. PCBs are persistent contaminants in the environment. Due to the high lipid solubility and slow metabolism rate of these chemicals, PCBs accumulate in the fat-rich tissues of almost all organisms (bioaccumulation). The use of PCBs is prohibited in OECD countries, however, due to its wide use in the past, it still can be found in e-waste and in some other wastes.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the most widely-used plastic, used in everyday electronics and appliances, household items, pipes, upholstery etc. PVC is hazardous because contains up to 56% chlorine which when burned produces large quantities of hydrogen chloride gas, which combines with water to form hydrochloric acid and is dangerous because when inhaled, leads to respiratory problems.

Selenium Exposure to high concentrations of selenium compounds cause selenosis. The major signs of selenosis are hair loss, nail brittleness, and neurological abnormalities (such as numbness and other odd sensations in the extremities).

Personal Computers (PCs)

Televisions and Computer Monitors (other than flat screens) produce images using a cathode ray tube (CRT), a heavy funnel-shaped glass tube with a Åat screen at the front and an electron emitter at the back. The CRT creates images when electrons hit the back of the phosphor-coated screen, lighting it up and allowing us to watch cartoons or browse the web. In order to protect humans and animals from radiation produced inside the cathode ray tubes, 3-8 pounds of lead are encapsulated in the glass within each monitor or television. While lead has long been known to be a human toxin capable of causing cancer, there are many other materials in electronic waste with toxic effects.

CRT'S are not the only hazardous components in e-waste. Circuit boards readily qualify as hazardous waste due to the presence of lead and copper. This means that everything from cell phones to electronic toys and microwave ovens have hazardous components in them and must be handled properly at end of life. Mercury is present in Åat screens, scanners, and switches. Beryllium, cadmium, and arsenic also present in electronic waste mean it must be handled properly at the time of disposal.

Many discarded computers still work, but they are "thrown away" or stored in garages to make room for upgrades. Tons of computers that are supposedly "recycled" end up being exported to developing countries.


This is a great link to CBC's Marketplace broadcast of Environment>>High-Tech Trash originally broadcast October 22,2002 it really is a well researched and comprehensive look at what is being done and what is not being done with computer waste. It also tackels some really serious problems that are begining to emerge as a result of this stuff being dumped in landfills it takes a look at the problem in  both a domestic and international context. Take a look you will be very surprised as were we, here at the TFP at the scope of the problem its one of those articles that spurs us on here at TFP to do our work and further the cause of extending the life of computers and to work on some real solutions.

CBC Newsworld  documentary that serves up some real hard hitting facts on E-waste which aired Wednesday, October 22nd 2008.  Please visit their site and be prepared to be shocked it will make you think twice about chucking out your old electronics. way to go CBC you have done it once again hats off to you!


Mounting Concerns Over Electronic Waste

Mountain of computers in landfill.

Electronics are being replaced every day with faster and smaller devices, and yet few are recycled after these products become obsolete. As a result, mountains of electronic waste are piling up in landfills across Canada.

Of even greater concern is that most electronic equipment contains toxic substances such as lead, cadmium and mercury. These heavy metals and other substances found in electronic products can pose elevated risks to human health and the environment if they are not properly managed.

Electronic waste can contain both toxic substances and recyclable materials. Photo: John Wlodarczyk. Click to enlarge.

These products also contain valuable material such as aluminum, ferrous metals and copper that could be recycled. However, due to the shortage of electronic waste recycling facilities in Canada, very little is being recovered.

In response to the growing need to safely manage obsolete electronic equipment and promote product-focused resource recovery strategies, Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Industry Canada are working together with equipment brandowners, provinces, territories and other stakeholders to forge a national industry-led program to take back and properly recycle unwanted equipment.

How much e-waste is there?

Environment Canada commissioned two studies to estimate the amount of computer equipment, phones, televisions, stereos, and small home appliances disposed each year. The first study on Information Technology and Telecommunication Waste in Canada, released in October 2000, and the Baseline Study on End-of-Life Electrical and Electronic Equipment in Canada, released in June 2003, provide a better understanding of the magnitude of the e-waste problem in Canada. Combined, these studies reveal that disposed computer equipment, phones, audio-visual equipment and small household appliances account for more than 140 000 tonnes (or 4.5 kg per capita) of waste each year in Canada.

Producers Take Responsibility

Several major brandowners of electronic products have identified that they are committed to developing, financing and administering a Canada-wide program to divert e-waste from disposal by ensuring that it is properly recycled. This concept, commonly referred to as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), places the onus on producers to properly manage their products at the post-consumer stage. EPR has rapidly gained much popularity, both in Canada and other parts of the world, because it has a potential to stimulate producers to design longer-lasting, less hazardous, and more recyclable products. In Canada, EPR has already been applied to target a broad range of post-consumer product streams such as used oil, scrap tires, batteries, beverage containers and packaging.

The Canadian electronics industry established a not-for-profit organization known as Electronic Product Stewardship Canada (EPS Canada) to lead design and implementation of a national EPR program for e-waste, and liaise with Canadian governments and other stakeholders on this issue. The organization is composed of industry representatives from two industry associations, namely Information Technology Association of Canada and Electro-Federation Canada, and 16 major multi-national corporate funding partners.

EPS Canada plans to roll out the implementation of a national industry program over a five-year period, starting in 2004. Designed to encourage consumers to reuse and recycle their electronics, the program will initially target personal computers, laptops, printers and televisions. In time, the program will broaden in scope to include other types of electronic equipment.

Similar to other EPR programs, industry proposes to finance its national program by imposing environmental levies on their products. It is anticipated that consumers will be charged between $2 - 7 for laptops and printers, and $20 - 25 for televisions and personal computers.

To help ensure that hazardous wastes and recyclables are managed in an environmentally sound manner, Environment Canada is revising its existing Export and Import of Hazardous Waste Regulations and developing federal guidelines for managing end-of-life computer equipment. Combined, these tools will provide added measures to protect human health and the environment from hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable material streams, including electronics.

Refurbishing programs aimed at recycling electronic goods are gaining in popularity. Computers for Schools is just one of many programs that encourage reuse of older electronic products like computers. The Computer for Schools program reconditions donated equipment and distributes them free of charge to schools and libraries across Canada. Computers for Schools currently delivers over 340 refurbished computers per day. To date, it has refurbished over 426 000 computers.

E-waste and You

You can help to keep electronic products out of landfills by:

  1. Encouraging vendors and brand owners to subscribe to a take-back and recycling program for the electronic products they sell or make.
  2. Upgrading or repairing electronic products where feasible instead of replacing them with new ones.
  3. Donating your old equipment to a family member, friend or charitable organization.
  4. Checking with your municipality to learn about reuse, recycling and disposal options for electronics in your area.

Fast Facts

More than 140 000 tonnes of computer equipment, phones, televisions, stereos, and small home appliances accumulate in Canadian landfills each year. That's equivalent to the weight of about 28 000 adult African elephants or enough uncrushed electronic waste to fill up the Toronto Skydome every 15 years.

An estimated 4 750 tonnes of lead is contained in personal computers and televisions disposed each year in Canada.

By 2005, yearly disposal figures for personal computers alone will contain an estimated 4.5 tonnes of cadmium and 1.1 tonnes of mercury.

Exposure to high levels of lead, cadmium and mercury in the environment has been linked to adverse effects on human health and wildlife. This includes subtle neurobehavioural effects for lead, chronic kidney damage for cadmium, and sensory or neurological impairments for mercury.

Electronics contain valuable resources such as ferrous metals, aluminum, and copper, however most electronics are currently sent to landfill. In 1999, it is estimated that disposed personal computers alone contained 4 400 tonnes of ferrous metal, 3 050 tonnes of aluminum and 1 500 tonnes of copper.

Extended Producer Responsibility recognizes that brandowners and manufacturers are in the best position to control the longevity, content, and recyclability of the products they design and market.

Related Sites

National Office of Pollution Prevention

Transboundary Movement Branch

Extended Producer Responsibility & Stewardship

Computer for Schools

Electronic Product Stewardship Canada

Information Technology Association of Canada

Electro-Federation Canada

Related EnviroZine Articles

Out With The Old, In With The New...But Wait!

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Pollutants in Your Neighbourhood

POPs - The Dirty Dozen

What are future concerns about landfills?

What do you do with old computers and the parts that are obsolete or just a few years old but lack the latest capabilities?

What to do with your old appliances?

You are here: EnviroZine > Issue 01 > Feature 3

Out With The Old, In With The New...But Wait!

One of the reasons computers make great gifts for the holidays is the guarantee that adults and kids of all ages will enjoy every bit and byte. If you are one of the lucky ones to receive the latest and fastest PC this holiday season, what will you do with your older, slower machine? Before you head for the dumpster, there are things you should know about clearing your home of an old computer in the most environmentally friendly way.

A newly-released study from Environment Canada documents the increasing number of waste computers and telecommunications equipment making their way to landfills and other disposal facilities across Canada. Computer technology is advancing at a rapid pace leaving users with older and obsolete equipment more quickly than ever. For this reason and numerous others, this report highlights the need for cooperative action to manage this growing waste management issue.

The report - Information Technology and Telecommunications Waste in Canada - provides baseline information on the amount of computer and telecom equipment waste currently being generated and handled in Canada. The report projects a growing number of computers will find their way to disposal facilities, mainly landfill sites. It demonstrates the need for government and industry to initiate activities and programs for the reuse and recycling of used computers and reduce potential releases of toxic substances such as mercury, lead and cadmium.

The report also includes a summary of programs that currently exist in Canada for used computers such as the Computers for Schools program run by Industry Canada. This program runs over 60 workshops across Canada and works with institutions, communities, business and governments to redistribute refurbished computer equipment to Canadian elementary schools and secondary schools. The Computers for Schools program also involves various companies such as Sears and Canadian Tire that donate their shipping services to deliver all old computers to the program.

The Government of Canada is committed to informing Canadians about potential challenges computer waste may pose on the environment. This report is the first step in providing decision makers in provinces, municipalities, industry and Canadians in their communities with good information to help them come up with viable solutions and policies. One of the key solutions to this issue is improved environmental management by industry, including the adoption of approaches such as Extended Producer Responsibility, design for the environment and toxics use reduction. This will have positive impacts throughout the economy on eco-efficiency and sustainable development.

Things you can do to help manage this environmental issue:

  • to the extent possible, upgrade your PC rather than replace it;
  • check with your equipment brand owner for their product take-back policies and programs;
  • donate your old computer equipment to a family member, friend or a charitable organization;
  • find a location in your community that accepts old computer equipment for refurbishing;
  • check with your local computer store or municipality to learn about disposal or recycling options in your area.

A copy of the Information Technology and Telecommunication Waste in Canada report is available on Environment Canada's Green Lane.

VIDEO: Where Do Old Computers Go?, Canada's premier television daily science newsmagazine, shows you what some people are doing with their old computers.

And it takes you through the recycling process for the growing piles of unwanted computers and telecommunication equipment waste. The report commissioned by Environment Canada is also discussed.

Check out their site for an article and video clips from a recent edition of the show.

Facts and Figures

Between 1992 and 2000, Canadians disposed of enough PCs and monitors to fill 953 Olympic size swimming pools.

In 1999, the estimated quantity for disposal of this equipment was 36,933 tonnes.

In the year 2000, it is projected that Canadians will dispose of 40,775 tonnes of PCs, monitors, printers, scanners, telephones, cell phones and fax machines. This amount equals four times the weight of the Toronto Skydome retracting roof.

The quantity of computer waste being disposed of is expected to almost double over five years to an estimated 71,650 tonnes in 2005.

Other useful sites:  

Computers for Schools

Information Technology Association of Canada

International Association of Electronics Recyclers

IBM Environmental Program

Apple Environmental Program

In the News

Mille tonnes de déchets électroniques dangereux disparaissent chaque année au Québec (8 mars 2002, Multimédium - French only)

EnviroZine Links

What do you do with old computers and the parts that are obsolete or just a few years old but lack the latest capabilities?

How do we dispose of our 20 year old microwave safely?

UCCRP (Unusable E-Waste Recycling Program) 

A comprehensive Unusable E-Waste Recycling Program or UERP will be coming soon here at Technology For People Group Inc. We are hoping in the very near future to begin this program  as we are currently in the planning and promotion stage we will keep you posted as to its progress.