Prof. Gisele Azimi featured in Chatelaine article on e-waste

(The following is an abridged version of “The Real Environmental Toll of Your Smartphone,” originally published in Chatelaine on April 2, 2019. Credit: Takara Small)


We all know that our smartphones and iPads can be bad for our sleep and attention span. But our old tech toys can pose a much more direct risk to our health—improperly disposed of, they can leach toxic chemicals into the environment which can then affect our health. […]

There is a huge human toll to even make these devices. While countries like Canada have robust regulations in place about how and when materials can be sourced, developing countries—where most of today’s minerals used in the production of smartphones are sourced—do not. Many of the industry’s biggest manufacturers currently source goods from developing economies that suffer from weak corporate and social oversight. For instance, a 2017 report from Amnesty International found that more than half of the world’s cobalt, a key component in lithium-ion batteries, comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where miners have to contend with toxic dust, industrial runoff and unsafe working conditions.

Excessive mining also threatens the future of local growth in developing countries by depleting natural reserves and curtailing local manufacturing growth, says Gisele Azimi, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s not just the environmental damage,” she says. “If the materials aren’t being recycled, you’re generating high levels of new e-waste and the industry will face supply shortages in the next 10 years and costs will skyrocket.” […]

In Canada, a shift in retailer-led environmentalism has made it easier to recycle old devices for free. For instance, Apple has its own trade-in program where consumers can trade in gadgets for store credit, Staples accepts old devices and Best Buy partners with companies like eCycle to handle consumer e-rubbish.

The EPRA also details directions and locations of recycling hubs across the country. Unlike other garbage collectors, EPRA doesn’t charge consumers dropping off unwanted goods. The goods are sorted and recycled by its contractors who extract minerals that can be reused. Last year, the organization was able to divert a total of 85 million tonnes of gadgets from landfills.

Azimi and her team at University of Toronto have created a process that allows companies to recycle elements found in electronics in as little as one hour. While not commercially available just yet, she sees it as the future of electronic waste and a way to lessen the pressure placed on the environment.

“If you can enable green technology it’s a big win for companies and the environment,” says Azimi.

Read the full article in Chatelaine HERE