Saturday, November 21, 2009

Do What You Can.Ca

I've been looking for a site that directs people to reputable e-recycling companies in Ontario. I'm really excited because I just found one. The site is called and it's great because you can search by type of waste, postal code or community. It lists only those collection sites that are certified by the Ontario Electronic Stewardship (OES), the industry funded organization that ensures that goods are handled in a secure and environmentally sound manner. This may seem strange that I'm recommending a site that is funded by the industry, but the OES works in cooperation with the Ministry of the Environment and Waste Diversion Ontario to uphold the Waste Diversion Act introduced in 2002. Allow me to explain further.

If you've ever recycled old electronics in the past you probably remember how expensive it was to do so. It can be a real deterrent for most people when they're asked to pay up to 30% of the original cost of the electronic device. This April, 2009, a really exciting program was launched in Ontario: Phase 1 of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Program plan. This program now allows you to take your old devices and drop them off at the designated locations (see for FREE!

There has been a gradual shift of responsibility onto brand owners to ensure the proper disposal of their products [1]. Brand owners, first importers, franchisers, and assemblers currently need to pay fees that go towards the WEEE Program. The OES, which proposed and operates the WEEE program, has already received approval for Phases 1 and 2 of the program from the Minister of the Environment [2]. The main difference between the two phases lies in the list of products that are accepted for disposal. If you click this link you can review a list of the products that qualify under Phases 1 and 2. You'll notice that Phase 1 only includes a small proportion of WEEE products. The program is being implemented in stages to allow for adequate collection and recycling infrastructure to develop. Also this will allow the OES to evaluate the program performance prior to launching Phase 2 [3]. At first I was disappointed by this protracted implementation plan, but I actually think it makes a lot of sense. At the very least I'm hoping this allowance for infrastructure development has avoided or reduced the temptation to ship e-waste overseas due to overwhelming amounts. Recycling depots would be inundated with e-waste if all of the electronics destined for landfills were diverted to them. Overseas shipment of e-waste would be an even more tempting solution, especially if industry was paying for their products to "disappear".

Personally, I would still ask the collection agent where the items are recycled to ensure that the products are indeed being recycled locally. I recommend asking the collection agents for details first and if they don't know I would contact the Electronics Product Stewardship Canada or the Ontario Electronic Stewardship.

The Difficulty of Finding a Reputable Recycling Company

I've come across dozens of documentaries and articles about recycling companies who claim to do their recycling locally, when in fact some of their items are shipped overseas. An exceptional video from CBS' program 60 Minutes looks at a small business in Colorado called Executive Recycling. This company has successfully spread the message to residents about the importance of recycling products locally, but they are caught on video shipping containers filled with cathode ray tubes (CRTs - from old tvs and computer monitors) to Hong Kong.

There is a particularly uncomfortable scene when they visit Guiyu, China (the worlds largest e-waste dumping ground), and the cameramen had to wrestle to keep their cameras once discovered by the owners of the recycling operation. It serves to emphasize the political nature of this issue. One thing I just couldn't understand at first was how these dumping grounds could be kept a "secret" for soo long. Slowly I'm learning that this is an issue of power, poverty and greed. Surprise, surprise... Jim Puckett, an environmental health and justice activist and co-founder of the Basel Action Network, is interviewed in the film. The reporter asked him why people continue to knowingly work in this hazardous industry. This is his response:

"Desperate people will do desperate things, but we should never put them in that situation. It's a hell of a choice between poverty and poison and we should never make people make that choice."

Here is the documentary for those of you that are interested:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Do Jewelry and E-waste Have In Common?

This week in our environmental epidemiology class one of the main topics of discussion was lead. Our instructor brought up a very interesting source of exposure: lead jewelry. The discussion included a talk about how e-waste is contributing to this problem.

I came across two well-known stories from the United States that demonstrate this issue. In 2003, in Oregon, a 4 year old boy died after swallowing a piece of jewelry bought from a vending machine. Later it was discovered that the toy medallion consisted of 38.8% lead [CDC report, 2004]. More recently, in 2006, another child died from acute lead poisoning in Minnesota, after ingesting a metallic heart-shaped charm. The charm was a gift with purchase from Reebok, which was almost entirely made from lead (99.1%) [CDC report, 2006]. In both instances, the product responsible was imported from abroad. The Consumer Product Safety division of Health Canada, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the US, are responsible for ensuring that tragedies like this never happen but evidently things are missed.

How this relates to e-waste:
In my literature search I came across a paper by Weidenhamer and Clement looking at e-waste as a possible source for lead contaminated jewelry. These researchers took note of the movement of e-waste from North American to Asian countries, and hypothesized that recycled circuit boards were being used to produce these heavily leaded jewelry items sold in the US. They took sixteen jewelry items that were previously known to contain 20-80% lead, and analyzed the items for lead, copper and tin content. In addition, lead-tin solders (what's used to join two pieces of metal together) from workshops in China were looked at, which are typically 60% tin/40% lead or 63% tin/37% lead by weight [Geibig & Socolof, 2005]. The main source of lead in electronic goods is in these lead-tin solders and also leaded glass of cathode ray tubes (the big tubes found in older computer screens and tvs) [Ernst et al., 2003].

Eight samples of the solder used in workshops in Taizhou, China (a major e-waste recycling area) were retrieved for a comparison to the contents found in the jewelry samples. After analyzing and comparing the lead-tin content in all 16 jewelry samples, 6 samples contained suspicious amounts of tin, and 5 of these samples contained suspicious amounts of copper. Because copper is normally only a trace component of electronic solders, the heating of circuit boards in molten solder, as observed in e-waste recycling workshops, has the potential to transfer a significant amount of copper into the solder. This supports their hypothesis that at least some of the leaded jewelry may be manufactured from scrap solder materials.

This study did not look at heavily leaded jewelry (>80% lead by weight). So the question of where these highly leaded jewelry items are coming from still remains a mystery.

Here are some things to look out for when purchasing jewelry, as recommended by Health Canada:
  • Pure lead is heavy, soft, dark bluish grey in colour and has a dull surface.
  • Jewelry with a very high lead content tends to be: thicker and leave a greyish mark when wiped on a white piece of paper.
  • Check with the retailer before buying an item. If they cannot provide assurance, don't buy it.
  • For Children: don't allow them to wear adult jewelry, suck or chew on jewelry, and if items are swallowed contact emergency medical services if you think the item may have contained lead.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Searching the Literature: My Methods

I've recently completed a very broad literature search to find studies that look at the health impacts of e-waste recycling and dumping grounds, globally. The databases I searched included: Medline, EMBASE, Web of Science, GreenFILE, and Scholars Portal. I'm also in the process of looking through the reference lists of important papers, to see if my search has missed any pertinent studies. My initial search involved terms defining both e-waste and health, but I found that this excluded a number of important studies. Consequently, my final search only used keywords and MeSH terms that describe electronic waste.

For those of you that are interested, here is a breakdown of my search terms for Medline and EMBASE:

Electronics (exploded)
Waste disposal (exploded) OR Waste products (exploded) OR Hazardous waste (exploded) OR Waste management (exploded) OR Industrial Waste (exploded) OR Waste* (Keyword) OR Recycl* (keyword)

In total, 1052 unique titles were retrieved from the database searches. A surprising number of these titles were duplicates even after de-duplicating electronically. After reviewing all of these titles and abstracts I was able to narrow this down to 193 titles. I did this by excluding those studies that did not explicitly state in the title or abstract that they were measuring the level of exposure to a particular hazard (i.e. lead) in the environment for which e-waste recycling or dumping is attributable. A number of the studies I eliminated looked at testing new recycling methods or equipment. There was also an extensive body of literature discussing the political and economic side of e-waste recycling and disposal.

I decided to narrow this down further to 40 studies by only including those studies that involved both a measure of the level of exposure to a toxin and a measure of a particular health outcome. Unfortunately, I could not retrieve full articles for 7 studies because they were either written in Chinese or not available without payment for the article. I sent an email to the authors of these articles, so I may gain access to them eventually.

I'm now working on synthesizing and pulling together the information in these studies. So far, I've noticed that there is a complete absence of studies from dumping grounds in countries such as Ghana; areas where the UN Environment Programme has expressed concerns about the illegal importation of e-waste.

When E-waste Becomes A Security Issue

According to the 2009 Converge IT Asset Disposition (ITAD) Trends Report, "almost twice as many American IT managers said data security is more important to their organizations than being green when it comes to IT asset disposal." Although the report notes that there is better awareness of e-waste policies and procedures, I found their motivation for proper e-waste disposal to be quite interesting.

To elaborate on the security issue, there has been increasing concerns about the mishandling of personal information left on old electronics. In the introductory film previously posted, e-waste is presented as an explanation for why Ghana is the world's leading country for cyber crime. Ghana, being one of the known international e-waste dumping grounds, has been identified as a central region where electronic recyclers extract personal information such as credit card and bank account numbers to commit fraudulent acts.

At the end of the day it seems that IT managers could ensure both better security and greener disposal by utilizing local, reputable disposal companies. As long as both ends are achieved, I guess this is progress??

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground

I came across this video on the Treehugger website. These are just a few clips from a documentary that was aired on PBS. It's a really powerful documentary and great introduction to the e-waste issue in Ghana, China, and India.

Each country presents an interesting twist. In Ghana, the issue of security is looked at. In China, the film discusses how e-waste has become a major business. And, in India, the issue is no longer just about foreign e-waste. Due to a growing middle class, there is increasing concerns over the alarming rate of local e-waste production.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Brief Introduction: The Complex Web of E-waste Disposal

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, between 20 and 50 million tonnes of electronic waste (e-waste) is generated on a yearly basis worldwide [1]. This amount is growing at an alarming rate, making e-waste the fasted growing component of the municipal solid waste stream [2]. With the continuous growth of e-waste, important concerns have emerged over environmental and human health risks. Hazardous components include lead, mercury, cadmium, among others [3,4]. From a local perspective, the improper disposal of products has led to an accumulation of heavy metals in landfills [3]. Internationally, there are additional concerns.

In the late 1980’s, changes in environmental regulations led to a rise in the cost of hazardous waste disposal in industrialized nations. Subsequently, this led to a search for cheaper means of waste disposal, and hence the decision to ship hazardous waste to developing countries and Eastern Europe. Upon realization of this activity, great international outrage was heard leading to the adoption of the Basel Convention in 1992, which includes 172 Parties. Originally, an immediate ban was placed on the export of waste from OECD to non-OECD countries for final disposal. Then in 1995 an amendment was made banning the export of wastes intended for recovery and recycling. The last decade has been focused on enforcement of the convention and the reduction of waste generation [5].

Non-governmental environment organizations allege that between 50 and 80 percent of e-waste from Canada and the United States, destined for domestic recycling, is actually exported overseas [6,7,8]. This claim is particularly troublesome because Canada, unlike the United States, has signed and ratified the Basel Convention [5]. Marginalized populations in Asia and Africa typically receive this waste, after which the items are processed by hand using shredders, open fires, acid baths and broilers to extract valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper [9]. Consequently, toxic fumes and runoff threaten the health of workers and communities.