For the first time, Olympic medals for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games contain components of recycled electronic waste. Manufactured by Teck Resources of Vancouver, the medals contain up to 1.5 per cent metals sourced from computer parts, circuit boards, and other electronics. While the medals are still almost completely made of materials from mined mineral deposits, the inclusion of e-waste symbolizes a shift towards not only recycling electronic products, but also the incorporation of this recycling and reuse into important social and cultural applications, thus reducing the environmental impact of this waste.
This is crucial, as increasing use of personal technology and other electronics generates increasing amounts of waste, which poses a significant environmental and human health challenge when disposed of in landfills, as is done throughout the developing world. When toxic components of e-waste, such as lead and cadmium, are not removed prior to disposal, they leach into the soil and eventually contaminate groundwater. In some cases, such as that of an e-waste processing facility in Guiyu, China, groundwater may become so contaminated that authorities will have to ship drinking water from other locations, dozens of kilometers away. Additionally, workers processing e-waste are exposed to toxins though inhalation, ingestion and dermal absorption, and these toxins may be carried home on their clothing and skin, thus contaminating children and other family members.
Despite the grave and well documented environmental and human health impacts, the global trade of e-waste continues. Where e-waste disposal regulations are strict in developed countries, recyclers may chose to simply export the waste rather than paying the high costs of recycling it domestically. Additionally, the e-waste industry continues to be a significant employer in developing countries, with up to 25,000 people employed in this sector in Delhi alone. Even though the 1000 Olympic and Paralympic medals do not significantly reduce the amount of e-waste entering Canadian and international landfills, they do illustrate progress, and may generate discussion and awareness of the issue. This in turn could lead to greater domestic reuse and safer disposal of electronic materials, as well as eventual strengthening of e-waste policy.
CIELAP has previously researched the topic of e-waste recycling and the trade in waste electrical and electronic equipment. In our July 2009 Discussion Paper on the Sustainable International Management of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, we identified shortcomings of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, and noted how industrialized countries take advantage of a loophole that permits trade in e-waste for the purpose of reuse. The report also discussed the ongoing illicit transporting and dumping of hazardous wastes, and the environmental and human health effects of this practice. Finally, CIELAP presented recommendations for extended producer responsibility in managing waste electrical and electronic equipment.
- N. Antonowicz, CIELAP Intern
CIELAP report link: http://cielap.org/pdf/SustainIntWEEEMan.pdf