Electrical and Electronic Equipment Waste (Continued): Environmental Considerations and Transboundary Movements

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Electrical and electronic equipment waste (e‑waste) is made up of large appliances, small devices (like telephones and computers), batteries, fluorescent light bulbs and used cables. In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste, equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships, and this quantity could rise by 40% before 2030.

Because e‑waste contains both toxic substances and precious metals, it should not be disposed of with regular garbage. E‑waste needs to be formally managed to better use the raw materials it contains and to protect the environment and the health of workers. For a better understanding of the issues e‑waste raises, this HillNote looks at the environmental considerations and transboundary movements associated with their management. Along the same lines, a recently published HillNote discusses e-waste recovery and relevant legislation.

Environmental Considerations

In 2019, 82.6% of e-waste generated globally was dumped into landfills, incinerated or processed informally. Because e‑waste contains toxic substances like mercury and lead, these methods of disposal have harmful consequences for the environment and the health of workers. For example, every year, the global flows of undocumented e‑waste contain approximately 50 tonnes of mercury. Dumping these toxic substances in landfills contaminates soil and groundwater, and incinerating them releases toxic compounds into the air. In the informal sector, workers who earn their living recovering precious metals from landfills risk exposure to hundreds of toxic substances. Children, who represent a significant portion of workers in the informal sector, are particularly vulnerable to these substances.

These harmful impacts are mostly felt in low- and middle-income countries where recycling the precious metals contained in e-waste is a meaningful source of income and where the management infrastructure is largely informal or absent. Figure 1 provides an overview of e‑waste management around the world.

Figure 1 – Overview of Electrical and Electronic Waste Management Around the World

In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million tons of e-waste, or an average of 7.3 kg per capita. Every region of the world has adopted, to varying degrees, regulations to oversee e waste management. Europe is the region that produces the most e waste per capita, but it is also the region that recycles the most e waste. On the contrary, Africa produces the least amount of this waste per capita, but it also recycles the least. The Americas, Asia and Oceania fall somewhere between these two extremes. The value of raw materials present in this waste ranges from US$0.7 billion (Australia) to US$26.4 billion (Asia).

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, Report, United Nations University.

In 2003, the European Union (EU) adopted legislation to restrict the use of 10 substances that are potentially harmful to people and the environment, including cadmium, mercury and lead, in electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). All products containing electrical and electronic components, unless specifically excluded, must comply with these restrictions. In Canada, the federal government is required to control and prevent the risks posed by toxic substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. The list of toxic substances managed under this Act is updated periodically. Furthermore, it should be noted that EEE contains many of the toxic substances on this list, and in particular, mercury. Proposed regulations on certain toxic substances, announced in 2022, introduce restrictions on the manufacture, use, sale and import of products containing these substances, but they are not yet in force.

Regional and International Management of Transboundary Movements

Overview of Transboundary Movements

The management of e‑waste is not a domain exclusive to the countries that produce it. Rather, e‑waste is managed through a complex series of imports and exports known as transboundary movements. These movements are not without raising their own difficulties, in particular, as regards their quantification. Numerous reasons explain the challenge of quantifying transboundary e-waste flows, namely:

Despite the lack of data, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research estimated that in 2019, nearly 10% of global e-waste crossed country borders, and nearly 65% of these movements were uncontrolled. Figure 2 provides an overview of controlled and uncontrolled transboundary movements of e-waste.

Figure 2 – Overview of Transboundary Movements of Electrical and Electronic Waste

This world map shows controlled and uncontrolled flows of e-waste by global region. There are more uncontrolled flows than controlled ones, namely from North America, Europe and Oceania, to South America, Asia and Africa.

Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from C.P. Baldé et al., Global Transboundary E-waste Flows Monitor 2022, Report, United Nations Institute for Training and Research.

The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal

The Convention is the main international treaty that regulates the transboundary movements of hazardous waste. Ratified by 189 countries, including Canada, it aims to prevent hazardous waste trade patterns that are harmful to the environment and to society.

The Convention categorizes waste based on its chemical properties and intrinsic hazardous characteristics; however, some types of waste are explicitly considered to be hazardous or to require special considerations. Parties amended certain annexes to the Convention in 2022 to add e-waste to the list of types of waste that require special consideration; these changes will come into effect in 2025. Moreover, the Convention requires parties to reduce to a minimum their production of hazardous waste and waste that requires special consideration, and to ensure the safe disposal and transportation of this waste.

The Convention requires countries that import waste to give their informed consent before they receive hazardous waste or waste that requires special consideration. Parties may enter into separate agreements with other parties or non-parties, provided such agreements are no less “environmentally sound” than the provisions in the Convention. For instance, since 1986, Canada and the United States have been bound by the Agreement Between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America Concerning the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste, which sets out the administrative conditions for exporting, importing and transporting hazardous waste between the two countries. More than 98% of the transboundary movements of hazardous waste Canada makes are with the United States.

The Ban Amendment to the Convention, which came into force in 2019, prohibits members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD),  EU and Liechtenstein from shipping hazardous waste destined for disposal, recycling or recovery to non-OECD countries. Approximately half the parties to the Convention, including Canada, have not yet ratified this amendment. Meanwhile, Canada can still, with prior consent, legally export hazardous waste or EEE destined for repair to any non-OECD country that also has not ratified the amendment. A number of environmental groups have called on the Government of Canada to ratify the amendment.

As shown in Figure 2, despite the Convention, several countries, including Canada, are still exporting e‑waste to low- and middle-income countries without obtaining their prior consent. For example, reports published by the Basel Action Network noted that Canada, the United States and Australia were illegally exporting e-waste shipments to Asia. The lack of data on transboundary movements coupled with the absence of oversight of these movements in most countries may contribute to illegal exports.

Courses of Action

Several countries and organizations are taking action to improve regional and international management of e-waste. For example, the Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership was created by the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations University–Sustainable Cycles and the International Solid Waste Association  as a way of addressing the challenges associated with managing e-waste, including the lack of global data. The StEP Initiative rallies stakeholders from various sectors to find solutions to the global challenge of managing e-waste. Having better data would help set reduction targets, monitor progress over time and make better policies. It could also help prevent illegal exports and informal recycling while encouraging formal recycling.

In March 2023, Environment and Climate Change Canada launched consultations on proposed amendments to the Cross-border Movement of Hazardous Waste and Hazardous Recyclable Material Regulations to add a new provision that would prohibit the export of hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable material and that would consequently allow Canada to become aligned with obligations that stem from the Convention’s Ban Amendment.

At the end of a conference in May 2023, the parties to the Convention and other stakeholders decided to develop instructions for creating e-waste inventories, in order to better distinguish between EEE that actually can be repaired and e-waste, at the time of export.

By Sarah Lemelin-Bellerose, Library of Parliament

Categories: Agriculture, environment, fisheries and natural resources, Business, industry and trade

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