Toxic Trade News / 22 December 2006
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Dangerous waste bound for China is intercepted
by Larry Pynn, The Vancouver Sun (Canada)
  A worker looks at a huge pile of junk computers from around the world in Guiyu Town, about 1,500 kilometres southwest of Shanghai, China.

© Eugene Hoshiko, Associated Press
22 December 2006 – A joint investigation by federal agencies has exposed Canada's dirty role as a major illegal exporter of hazardous waste to developing countries.

Fifty containers loaded with about 500,000 kg of metal and plastic scrap destined for China and Hong Kong were seized at the Port of Vancouver.

Environment Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency report that the electronic waste seized from 27 Canadian companies since November 2005 came from across Canada, but mainly Quebec and Ontario.

The waste included thousands of computer monitors containing products such as lead, along with lead-acid batteries, and fluorescent lamp ballasts containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), proven to be toxic to both the environment and humans.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," Emmanuel Mendoza, enforcement engineer for Environment Canada, said in an interview Thursday. "We're dealing with a very large, relatively unknown industry."

While there is foreign demand for recycling some electronic waste, Mendoza believes the greater rationale for the illegal trade is that it is cheaper to dispose of such products offshore than to do so properly in Canada.

Export of the toxic material is a violation of Chinese and Hong Kong domestic laws, Canadian law, and the Basel Convention, adopted in 1989 to regulate the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes.

Mendoza does not know exactly where all the computer waste originated, but wouldn't be surprised if it included a combination of private, company and even government agencies, reinforcing the need for everyone to take greater care in ensuring their e-waste is properly recycled.

"Seller beware," he said. "Be wary and discerning on who you deal with in terms of recycling."

And while the joint operation has raised public awareness of the issue of illegal export of electronic waste, don't expect any of the violators to end up in jail any time soon. Ottawa won't even tell you who they are.

Ivan Peterson, chief of marine waterfront and warehouse inspections for the Canada Border Services Agency, confirmed that the 27 companies have been assessed out-of-court administrative penalties of $50,801 -- less than than $2,000 apiece -- under the Customs Act.

The civil penalties are based on a graduating scale and meant to be "corrective rather than punitive," he said. As such, Ottawa won't reveal the company names.

"We hope these exporters get a clear message. They must adhere to our regulations and international obligations."

Environment Canada is also continuing an investigation into potentially more serious charges under the Environmental Protection Act. Fines on summary conviction can reach $300,000 or six months in jail to a maximum fine of $1 million and three years in jail upon indictable conviction.

"Our goal is to prevent the export of these from Canada," said Mendoza, who believes the companies involved knew they were acting illegally. Peterson said his officers targeted about 200 containers during their investigation, 50 of which contained illegal hazardous waste and recyclable materials. "The number of shipments of scrap leaving the country is certainly on the increase."

Peterson added: "The stuff we prevented from going out has been destroyed, or disposed of, in an environmentally sound manner. We did take care of them in a good way. Environment Canada can provide the specifics."

But Mendoza revealed that much of the waste had in fact been returned to the exporters for proper disposal because Environment Canada lacked the space to store it.

Given the low fines to date and the government admission it is catching only a small fraction of the shipments, what's to stop the companies from trying again to export?

"They could try that," he said. "But they're already on the radar."

Ottawa involves itself in the illegal export of such products, and the provinces set their own rules for disposition at home.

In B.C., the industry organization, Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, is expected to deliver a program as early as next spring of certified companies to which the public can return computer products for recycling.

B.C. consumers will pay a surcharge on new TVs, computers, and printers to cover the cost of environmentally sound recycling of metals, glass, and plastics.

Alberta launched the country's first electronics recycling program in 2004, levying a surcharge of $5 on new laptops, $8 for printers, $10 for keyboards, $12 for monitors, and $15 to $45 for TVs, according to size.

Brock MacDonald, executive director of the Recycling Council of B.C., said landfills are developing policies to prohibit such e-waste once the stewardship program is in place. In the meantime, tonnes of electronic waste is dumped into B.C. landfills.

The council currently recommends just two e-waste companies, Computers for School, a re-use organization, and Genesis Recycling Ltd. of Aldergrove.

Genesis general manager Doug Surtees said his company recycles 80 to 100 tonnes of e-waste per month, much of that from government agencies.

He said much of the e-waste shipped overseas has been collected from Canadian companies that have a policy against dumping it in landfills. Instead, it is shipped overseas, where cheap labour might recycle some parts but usually under conditions that are unsafe to people and the environment.

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