Companies & Industries

Where computers go to die

Charges laid against B.C. e-waste company.

A worker unloads salvaged computer keyboards March 26, 2008 in Guiyu, China (Photo: Chien-min Chung/Corbis)

A worker unloads salvaged computer keyboards March 26, 2008 in Guiyu, China (Photo: Chien-min Chung/Corbis)

We’ve all come to know the drop boxes and depots that have sprung up across Canada to collect our increasingly disposable computers, mobile devices, spent batteries and other electronic waste. While we expect this detritus to be recycled responsibly, an unquantifiable amount instead ends up polluting fields and lakes of other countries. A jarring reminder of this reality came this spring when Surrey, B.C.–based Electronics Recycling (Canada) and its president, Sai Feng Guan, were charged with 24 counts of violating federal hazardous-waste transport rules.

At issue are 15 shipments from B.C. to Macau made during the latter half of 2011 that allegedly contained cathode-ray-tube monitors and batteries. The allegations have not been proven in court, and the company did not respond to interview requests. But the evidence from industry watchdogs and rare enforcement actions suggests that such diversion of material to poorly policed jurisdictions is commonplace.

Most provinces have electronic-product stewardship programs that produce detailed recycling standards, operate collection sites and pay certified companies to process e-waste. It’s all funded through fees charged on electronics at checkout. “We have over 40 approved authorized recyclers in Canada,” says Cliff Hacking, CEO of the Electronic Products Recycling Association, “and plenty of capacity to deal with all of the electronics generated in this country.”

As well, Canada is party to the 1992 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. Among other things, it prohibits sending such waste to non-member states, or to any member country that has banned their import. Legitimate transfers must be accompanied by permits. This gives Environment Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency tools to block exports.

The problem is that Canada’s health and environmental standards make recycling e-waste costly. In many developing countries, such regulations are absent or unenforced, allowing recyclers to extract valuable, readily accessible materials while discarding everything else. An informal recycler may simply smash a CRT, remove a valuable copper yoke and dump its carcass in a nearby river. Such practices abound in certain African and Asian countries. “China now appears to be the largest e-waste dumping site in the world,” claims a report published in April by the global think-tank Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP).

China is also a Basel signatory. It banned waste imports more than a decade ago. Anyone shipping e-waste there from Canada will therefore misidentify it on manifests. And since China stepped up screening at its ports, smugglers will ship indirectly via Vietnam, Hong Kong or Macau. While such tactics hide the activity, evidence periodically surfaces. In 2006, inspections at the Port of Vancouver by federal officials found 50 containers filled with e-waste bound for China and Hong Kong, resulting in small penalties for 27 Canadian companies.

Cindy Coutts, president of Sims Recycling Solutions Canada, says that though primary recyclers are regularly audited, downstream companies receiving partly processed commodities for further refining receive far less scrutiny. Unscrupulous recyclers may clandestinely sell difficult-to-handle materials to other parties, resulting in their eventual transfer offshore.

Coutts travels regularly to China to inspect facilities of prospective partners. She’s seen CRT glass bulldozed into rivers and workers exposed to toxic fumes or working precariously close to dangerous shredding machinery. “We’ve probably audited 63 companies, and we’ve approved eight,” she says. At facilities she deems unacceptable, “I often see materials from other Canadian companies sitting there. I know it’s flowing.”