A billion balconies facing the sun.

Ones and zeros. Where do they go when you throw away your computer? It may sound like a philosophical question, but given the ever-increasing adoption of personal computing devices of all sizes, it might just be a question worth asking. With new devices imploring hapless consumers to buy them every couple of months, can anyone be blamed for finding themselves in a pile of out-dated and unused technology? E-waste is a growing problem and it is one that touches every corner of this earth in surprisingly disparate ways.

Soberingly, only 20 per cent of the world’s e-waste is properly recycled; leaving millions of tonnes of batteries, motherboards, OLEDs and forgotten memories to bake in the sun of landfills around the globe. This “great gap” has fueled entire industries built off of the movement of hazardous waste. In many cases, some of the world’s lowest-paid workers find their way into these landfills to mine the precious metals from the computing components. Continual exposure to lead and mercury makes this form of renegade mining a dangerous and sometimes deadly profession.

Throughout the evolution of consumer technology, there have been several flashpoints where production and adoption outpaced ethical and regulatory progress. The average consumer is forced to calculate the cost-benefit of pollution in almost every purchase they make, with electronic goods offering the gravest Pandora’s Box. The black mirror in our pocket, while useful, has a lifecycle far longer than even the most viral meme its user can generate.

So what can be done? Given the rapid adoption of our smartphone-enhanced lifestyles, we find ourselves at yet another flashpoint as each one of us contributes one new phone annually on average to the world’s e-waste supply, not to mention the countless dongles, adapters and obsolete peripherals along with them.

Active participation in a problem requires active participation in the solution. By advocating for and educating the public on the issue of e-waste, the ERA has become one of Canada’s most active participants in the fight against e-waste and the ever-growing digital divide. The Electronic Recycling Association is a global non-profit organization that has been reducing unnecessary electronic waste since 2004. The association reduces adverse environmental contributions through the recycling, repurposing, and donation of electronics snd other IT equipment; providing underprivileged communities with the equipment they need to actively participate in the digital economy. With drop off locations and pick up services across Canada and the US, the ERA provides a meaningful way for organizations and individuals to deal with their old computer equipment in a safe and secure manner that matches or exceeds government standards.

I recently sat down with Bojan Paduh, Founder and President of the ERA, to talk about the issue of e-waste and find out what the average consumer can do to responsibly handle their own unused or decommissioned consumer devices.

What is the Electronic Recycling Association doing to educate Canadians on the issue of e-waste and electronic recycling?

Through the years ERA’s work has inspired partnerships all across Canada. ERA has partnered with dozens of businesses who collect e-waste on ERA’s behalf, simply because they believe in what ERA is doing and they want to see more thorough uptake of reuse and charitable donation programs.

These partnerships serve not only to increase the volume of diverted e-waste, but also to raise the profile about its importance and relevance. Back in 2017, we implemented an advisory board of seasoned professionals from a variety of backgrounds to evaluate ERA’s strategic plans and provide expert advice to ensure ERA continues to offer the most environmentally, security-wise and socially effective e-waste program.

The ERA has a number of valuable partnerships across Canada with industry groups, businesses and charitable groups that serve to expand, reach and provide better management of e-waste while bridging the digital divide. We have partnered with many environmental and technological groups to help drive change toward reuse within the recycling industry. We have partnered with technology associations like CIOCAN, Evanta, and iTech to work with industry thought leaders on changing the attitude towards retiring tech – just to name a few.

We offer multiple programs that not only benefit the community but also benefit our environment. Some of our programs include:

– Moolah for Macros program (Fundraiser for the organization in need of funding)
– Donation Program (Outgoing donations to organizations in need)
– Parts to PC program (Educating children aged 12-15 on assembling and reassembling electronic devices)
– Community Collection Events (Working with charitable organizations, cities and other groups to create a sustainable awareness within the community)
– Volunteering Opportunities (Hands-on warehouse and technical experience at any one of our 7 locations)
– School Presentations (Educating the future of tomorrow on the importance of reuse versus recycling)

What can municipal governments do to create a regulatory regime that can foster a higher rate of e-waste recycling?

The ERA advocates municipal governments to explore a “reuse first” approach to retiring equipment. We live in a “consumption-based” economy, and there are all kinds of reasons why organizations choose to retire equipment. Leveraging new features, functions or capabilities is one – taking advantage of vendor incentives to buy more is another.

Especially in the workplace, “the equipment no longer works” is rarely the reason for it being retired as organizations cannot take on the risk of disruption to their business due to failing hardware. As such, a significant volume of retiring equipment is still functional and represents productive use to others. Why route on functional equipment for end-of-life destruction based recycling, if it is not at the end of life?

Reuse is the most ecological approach to this growing stream, and also provides the opportunity for those individuals or organizations in need to “bridge the digital divide” associated with computing requirements.

It is for these reasons that the Federal Government of Canada has a publicly articulated mandate on “reuse first” for all their retiring IT and electronic equipment. This policy can be found at this link on the Government of Canada’s website.

“We live in a “consumption-based” economy, and there are all kinds of reasons why organizations choose to retire equipment. Leveraging new features, functions or capabilities is one – taking advantage of vendor incentives to buy more is another.”
Are enough consumer electronic producers taking an active enough role in the solution-building process?

This is a key area in which the ERA, our numerous supporters and many others in the wider environmental sector seem to differ philosophically with the electronics producers themselves. Unfortunately, many of the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) – or the VARs (Value Added Reseller) who often are those selling the equipment – view reuse as a threat to net new sales.

Our consumption-driven economy – and the relentless pursuit of growth – prioritizes new financial achievements over those related to sustainability, unfortunately. This is not only inherent to the technology sector, but there are also numerous cases in other industries where companies would prefer to see their perfectly functional goods be put to waste – as opposed to good use.

“Our consumption-driven economy – and the relentless pursuit of growth – prioritizes new financial achievements over those related to sustainability, unfortunately.”

What side of the digital divide will you be on?

Our emerging generations, the vast majority of whom will build their lives in increasingly crowded, chaotic and competitive cities, are hungering for a clear and common sense of purpose, but can we offer them one?

From ecological exigency, to ongoing and intolerable community inequality, to a sense of rapidly eroding trust in an ever-connected world, we have reached a critical point in human history; a state of emergency that requires a profound shift towards more meaningful dialogue in order to overcome.

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