Electrical and electronic equipment waste (e‑waste) is made up of unwanted electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), such as large appliances, small devices (like telephones and computers), batteries, fluorescent light bulbs and used cables. According to the Global E‑waste Statistics Partnership, in 2019, Canada generated 757 kilotons (kt) of e‑waste, a weight equal to nearly 40,000 buses.
Because e‑waste contains precious metals, critical minerals and toxic substances (such as mercury and lead), it should not be disposed of with regular garbage. E‑waste needs to be managed properly to protect the environment and to make better use of the raw materials it contains. This HillNote discusses the economic potential of e‑waste.
Economic Potential of Electrical and Electronic Equipment Waste
E‑waste is sometimes referred to as an “urban mine,” because it contains several critical minerals and precious metals. In 2019, the estimated amount of e‑waste generated globally was 53,600 kilotons (kt), and the value of the raw materials it contained was in the tens of billions of U.S. dollars.
Figure 1 – Quantity and Potential Value of Raw Materials Present in Electrical and Electronic Equipment Waste, Worldwide in 2019
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Vanessa Forti et al., The Global E‑waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows, and the circular economy potential.
According to the International Energy Agency, further development of the recycling industry, so that more minerals and metals can be recovered, would relieve some of the current pressure on a mining industry in high demand for the development of low-carbon technologies and production of EEE. For example, in 2019, the global demand for iron, aluminum and copper for the production of new EEE was approximately 39,000 kt; it is estimated that approximately 25,000 kt of these materials were part of the e‑waste produced that same year.
However, given the wide variety of EEE, its constantly evolving nature and the fact that it contains toxic substances, the recycling technologies currently available are not yet advanced enough to create economically viable recycling facilities for all types of EEE.
Overview of Electrical and Electronic Equipment Waste Management in Canada and Internationally
Despite the significant economic potential of e‑waste recycling, a large proportion of this e‑waste is not collected. For example, globally, only 17% of e‑waste was reported as formally collected and recycled in 2019. The following are the collection rates in some countries:
- Canada: 14%
- Germany: 52%
- Australia: 11%
- Croatia: 78%
- United States (U.S.): 15%
- Finland: 61%
- France: 56%
- United Kingdom: 57%
- Sweden: 70%
Based on these figures, Australia, Canada and the U.S. have low e‑waste collection rates, while several European countries have high collection rates. These differences can be explained in part by legislation and initiatives put in place in these countries.
Electrical and Electronic Equipment Waste Management in Canada
In Canada, no specific legislation governs e‑waste management, but some federal legislation has a direct impact on managing e‑waste, namely the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 and the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations, 2012.
The federal government has also introduced environmental and safety standards to govern e‑waste recycling. The Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA), a not-for-profit organization, is responsible for ensuring that certified recyclers meet the requirements set out in these standards.
Figure 2 provides both an overview of e‑waste management in Canada and some recycling data.
Figure 2 – Overview of End-of-life Management of Electrical and Electronic Equipment Waste in Canada
Sources: Prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Economic Study of the Canadian Plastic Industry, Markets and Waste, 2019; Statistics Canada, Unravelling the story about household textile and e‑waste disposal in Canada, 15 February 2022; Recycle my Electronics, The Journey of End-of-Life Electronics; Electronic Products Recycling Association, RQO Approved Recyclers; C. P. Baldé et al., United Nations University, International Telecommunication Union & International Solid Waste Association, “Canada,” The Global E‑waste Monitor – 2017; and Vanessa Forti et al., The Global E‑waste Monitor 2020: Quantities, flows, and the circular economy potential.
The provincial, territorial and municipal governments are primarily responsible for e‑waste recycling programs in their regions. They generally use the extended producer responsibility model, which requires EEE manufacturers and retailers to ensure that products are recycled at end of their life. Most businesses do this by charging consumers environmental fees.
Implementing standards and overseeing regional e‑waste programs is mainly the responsibility of the EPRA’s regional sections, with the exception of Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Alberta, which have their own provincial recycling programs. Nunavut is the only region without an e‑waste recycling program.
The types of EEE that can be recycled vary by region. This often makes it more challenging to recycle some kinds of e‑waste in rural and remote areas. In addition to the programs set up by various levels of government, voluntary initiative programs and industry-run programs are also available.
Electrical and Electronic Equipment Waste Management Internationally
In the U.S., no formal regulations govern e‑waste management. However, in 2011, the U.S. government launched the National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship (NSES), which details its plan to improve e‑waste management. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency supports the NSES and works with local and international governments and environment officials to manage e‑waste.
The European Union (EU) has introduced various measures to support e‑waste recycling initiatives. For instance, in 2012, it published its directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment, which sets targets for collection, recovery and recycling. Consultations are underway to determine whether the directive remains consistent its objectives. The EU also published a report on the various options for improving e‑waste recycling.
In Australia, the federal government launched the industry-funded National Television and Recycling Scheme in 2011. It enables Australian households and small businesses to recycle certain e‑waste (like televisions, computers, printers and other peripherals) for free.
Courses of Action
Several courses of action can be considered for increasing the quantity of metals and minerals recovered through e‑waste recycling. They can include:
- encouraging the collection of more e‑waste, for example, by adding to the number of collection locations and kinds of EEE that can be collected, and by ensuring that e‑waste is not exported so that Canada has access to the critical minerals it contains (e.g., Canada could harmonize collection programs across regions to collect more kinds of EEE);
- improving the transparency and efficiency of e‑waste recycling facilities and communication between the parties involved (e.g., Canada could centralize certain recycling operations, as most provinces have sorting and dismantling facilities, but also need to transport a high volume of materials to other parts of the country, which is costly and time-consuming);
- investing in research and development to reduce recycling costs;
- improving data collection to better guide public policy on the e‑waste recycling process, including the type and quantity of e‑waste collected at different collection locations; and
- putting incentives in place so that companies produce EEE that is easier to recycle.
In addition, in a report on the role of critical minerals in clean energy transitions, the International Energy Agency points out that government measures are essential factors in the quantity of e‑waste collected and its recovery potential.
E‑waste is an “urban mine” with great economic potential, particularly since critical minerals and precious metals are increasingly coveted. All levels of government have a role to play in introducing appropriate policies and coordinating their actions to ensure that Canada fully harnesses the potential of its resources and becomes a leader in e-waste management.
By Sarah Lemelin-Bellerose, Library of Parliament