Workers Health & Safety Centre

Working Upstream

Working Upstream

Promoting clean production and healthy environments

Upgrade your computer lately?
Did you simply upgrade or did you junk the old unit and buy a brand new system?
What did you do with your old computer?
The growth in computer manufacturing is outpaced only by the rate owners discard their old units. Electronic waste is a sign of our affluent times. This spring the European Union (EU) passed legislation requiring manufacturers to take back electronics at their end of life, an attempt among other things to lessen the impact on overburdened landfills.
Efforts like these speak to increasing concerns that current methods of production and consumption of goods and services are simply unsustainable. In a world of conspicuous consumption, a slowly changing public mindset has begun to question what products are made of, how they’re made and if they’re even needed at all.  Activists and forward thinking governments and corporations are increasingly turning their minds to a new vision of production that uses fewer toxic materials, consumes less energy and ultimately produces less waste. This is good news for workers’ health and the environment.

European Initiatives

European nations continue to take the environmental lead. Germany was the first to introduce legislation in the 1990s to combat severe landfill shortages by enacting product packaging laws.
Following the example of member countries, Sweden and the Netherlands, the European Union Waste From Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) law, mandates by August 13, 2005, free take back of waste goods from final owners and holds equipment producers responsible for financing the collection, treatment, recovery and disposal of all waste.
Greater protection also now exists for workers who manufacture and dispose of electronics. Under the
EU’s Restrictions on Hazardous Substances in manufactured equipment law, producers must cease
using lead, mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium or the brominated flame retardants polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) and polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) in products marketed after July 1, 2006.   
European Union initiatives are not limited to electrical and electronic products though. Enacted in 2000, the EU’s End-of-Life Vehicle Directive mandates by January 2006, the reuse and recovery of 85 per cent (by weight) of end-of-life vehicles, increasing to 95 per cent by 2015.
First, the good news. About 75 per cent of vehicles (by weight) consist of metals like iron and steel that are recyclable. The remaining 25 per cent consists mainly of plastic, rubber, glass, textiles, fluids and paint that have the potential to be collected and recycled.
On the downside however the disposal and recycling of vehicles are also a major source of hazardous waste and toxic emissions. In the recovery of metal and steel, vehicles are shredded and separated so the metal can be recycled. But in the process tonnes of automotive ‘shredder waste’ is produced. This non-recyclable waste is heavily contaminated with lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, polyvinyl chloride, chlorofluorocarbons, chlorinated solvents and asbestos. When it is landfilled or burned, it can leach into soil and groundwater.
Like their newer efforts on electrical and electronic waste the EU’s Vehicle Directive addresses toxins too by phasing out the use of lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium in auto production. Ultimately, legislators hope the laws will encourage manufacturers to consider safe reuse and recycling and incorporate non-toxic materials into the production process to eliminate end-of-life toxic waste.

The ABCs of OPR

The EU directives are two examples of a concept known as extended producer responsibility (EPR) ­— one of the most significant tools in the pursuit of a safer, more sustainable future. With EPR the entire life cycle of a product comes under scrutiny from cradle to cradle — from raw material extraction and manufacturing through to use, disposal and reuse or remanufacturing.
Extended producer responsibility also calls on producers to bear a degree of responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products, including those associated with the post-consumer stage. Shifting the burden for discarded products from the public sector back to the private sector, EPR ultimately encourages cleaner production through design changes.
Conventional industrial production is linear — non-renewable raw materials are extracted and processed then manufactured into products creating hazardous waste at each stage. At the end of its short life cycle, the product is tossed in a landfill.
Clean production is holistic. It promotes renewable energy and materials and sustainable product design. It uses non-toxic products and processes and generates waste that is benign and can be returned and reused in the production process. With this cyclical approach everything gets returned back into the system and reused. 
Global demands for clean production are growing. The United Nations Environment Program is coordinating the International Declaration on Cleaner Production, a voluntary but public statement of commitment to increase awareness, understanding and demand for cleaner production. Canada is one of 1,700 national and regional signatories. As with the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas reduction though, securing signatures is only the first step.

Taking it back home

North American companies operating in Europe have had to adapt their products and production methods to meet legal mandates for EPR so why have similar initiatives been so slow to catch on here?  
Canadians will recognize EPR in the form of relatively successful deposit return systems for beverage containers. Some provinces have additional programs for taking back household hazardous waste, tires and paint but these largely emphasize waste recycling, not waste elimination.
North American landfills are also overburdened. American studies report discarded computers and other electronic or e-waste is growing three times faster than the overall municipal waste stream. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says more than 300 million personal computers in the U.S. will become obsolete by 2004. They also estimate discarded electronics account for more than 70 per cent of heavy metals in U.S. garbage dumps.
Canada isn’t far behind. The Information Technology and Telecommunication Waste in Canada Report commissioned by Environment Canada estimated in 1999 Canadians disposed of 33,972 tonnes of information technology waste, including personal computers, monitors, laptops and other devices like printers and scanners. But what’s also being dumped is 1,356 tonnes of lead, two tonnes of cadmium and a half tonne of mercury. By 2005 these numbers are expected to double.   
Currently, less than 10 per cent of discarded computers are recycled. The vast majority of these are shipped and disassembled in Asian countries.
Searching for solutions, the U.S National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative has brought together stakeholders to discuss issues related to electronic products management. Massachusetts and California have banned the dumping of computers at landfills and both California and Washington State are considering enacting EPR legislation on e-waste.
In Canada similar efforts are underway. The Information Technology Association of Canada that represents 1,300 companies in the computing, telecommunications and electronic content sectors recently announced Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, a not-for-profit organization that will work with partners and stakeholders to design, promote and implement sustainable solutions for Canada’s e-waste problem. The group hopes to launch its first end-of-life campaign in 2004.
What is most heartening however is a growing commitment by Canadian health, safety and environment activists to promote cleaner production. The focus of their efforts is legislated rather than voluntary measures. They simply reason, if voluntary measures worked, we would have implemented them by now.
Last fall activists gathered in Toronto to learn more about existing EPR initiatives and how they can be incorporated into Canadian workplaces and communities. The EPR conference, sponsored by the labour and waste caucuses of the Ontario Environment Network, Clean Production Network, Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW), Great Lakes United and the Toronto Environmental Alliance, challenged participants to think beyond the blue box.
Gary Davis is the director of the University of Tennessee Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies. Davis who works with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate the lifecycle environmental impact of products says EPR is more than product take-back campaigns. He told conference participants, “We need to apply EPR upstream as materials are selected and as products are manufactured. You can design pollution out of a product if you try hard enough.” 
Davis promotes the concept of green leases where consumers lease a product or service instead of buying the product. As an example he refers to Interface Flooring, with operations in Belleville, Ontario, a world leader in sustainable carpet leasing. The carpets, made of selenium, use natural and degradable fibres and are fully compostable. The material lasts four times longer than traditional carpets but when it does wear, Interface simply replaces the worn carpet tiles, taking back the discarded tiles to be remanufactured into new ones. 
Where purchasing cannot be avoided Davis encourages green purchasing policies that also further the goals of EPR.
Eliminating or reducing hazardous materials from the production process altogether is central to the work of Ken Geiser, director of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI), but it’s also the law. Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Act requires companies to file a plan annually on how they will reduce their use of toxic substances. The institute helps businesses, institutions and whole communities incorporate these strategies into their operations.
Geiser, who also spoke at the Toronto conference, says debate around toxics reduction has traditionally emphasized chemical releases into the environment. Instead says Geiser, “By focusing on the materials that go into products you can find ways to design out hazardous materials through safer work processes while reducing harm to workers and lessening the burden on the environment.”
Data accumulated over eight years and reported in 1997 by TURI showed companies generated 41 per cent less toxic waste and reduced toxic chemical use by 24 per cent. Businesses and the state combined also saved $15 million not to mention benefits to both environmental and public health.

Driving EPR in Canada

Nick DeCarlo envisions a day when scrap-yards are replaced by state-of-the-art vehicle disassembly plants. The CAW national representative responsible for workers’ compensation and environmental issues credits a committed and savvy rank and file for pressing union leadership on the matter. For instance, from a resolution passed at their national council meeting in April 2001, largely initiated by CAW Local 1520 environment activists in London, the CAW successfully negotiated the elimination of mercury-containing convenience lighting switches in vehicles manufactured in Canada after 2002 by DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors.
Windsor activists have also been aggressive in driving EPR initiatives. The CAW Windsor Regional Environment Council (WREC) this spring launched a petition campaign calling on the federal government to enact legislation that would require automobiles sold in Canada to be completely disassembled and recycled in Canada. This would also apply to automobiles manufactured in Canada or other countries. Ken Bondy is WREC president, “Workers have long feared that protecting the environment and their health on the job would translate into certain job loss but EPR presents some very real opportunities to create good, sustainable jobs.”
Based upon the Windsor initiative, CAW National Executive Board recently endorsed a national EPR campaign. This spring CAW president Buzz Hargrove sent a letter to all locals along with an EPR fact sheet and copies of the petition encouraging members to lobby all levels of government for EPR legislation.
“It’s no longer a pipe dream,” says DeCarlo. “It was CAW local activism that helped push the federal government to decriminalize the growing of industrial hemp. That campaign has created new jobs and lessened the burden on the environment.”
DeCarlo reports CAW locals are planning EPR workshops to educate and mobilize their members. In future rounds of bargaining he hopes the union will negotiate workplace technology committees. “If workers gain more control over the products they make and the environments in which they produce and consume, then ultimately the social needs of workers, communities and the environment will be considered in every production decision.”