A pile of e-junk

(Fotolia)

(Fotolia)

Thane Burnett, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:37 PM ET

Taking a stand on the amount of stuff we consume can sometimes leave you sitting to ponder uncomfortable questions.

After becoming incensed with the waste, including plastic, tossed away on the planet each day — a 2009 vacation saw her kids continually ask where the trash on the beach came from — Austrian mother Sandra Krautwaschl decided her family should live without the moulded products most of us count on for everything from toothbrushes to the makings of our family car.

Among the hurdles was toilet paper.

Excluding products that come protected in plastic, the Krautwaschl clan was left wiping with newspaper and even tree leaves.

They finally found recycled paper towels that come wrapped in more paper.

But their experiment had limits, and they realized they couldn't do without transportation — and they still needed to use technology that is almost always wrapped in layers of plastic.

Putting aside our Amish neighbours and the McMillan family of Guelph, Ont., who made headlines earlier this year for trying to live like it's 1986, most of us count on technological gadgets as much as, well, toilet paper.

Its connections to most of the knowledge man has ever collected — as well as the latest information on drunk celebrities caught peeing in flowerpots — grows greater each day.

But so does the garbage that unloved gizmos create.

To help calculate the quantity of cellphones, tablets, refrigerators, GPS devices, computers and assorted electronic debris most countries create and dispose of annually — literally anything with a battery or cord — a group of UN-affiliated partners has created the first E-waste World Map.


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The data, released Sunday by the group made up of industry, government, non-government and science organizations, paints an uncomfortable picture of a society buried in its advances.

By 2017, the Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) initiative estimates 65.4 million tonnes of electronics will be tossed out -- 33% more than in 2012. If you're trying to weigh that in your mind, it's about eight Great Pyramids of Giza.

Last year, spread across the world's population, there was 19.6 kg — or about the heft of eight red clay bricks — of electronic waste for each of the world's 7 billion people.

The map, say experts, begins an important tally.

StEP officials say they're only now beginning to connect the often-international lines of where products begin their lives and where they end their use.

Among the G20 emerging and advanced economies,

Canada placed 10th as a generator of e-waste — about 24.72 kg per Canadian.

"I think one of the interesting things about the map is that it helps undo some of the stereotypes that come with the e-waste problem," says Josh Lepawsky, an associate professor at the department of geography at Newfoundland's Memorial University.

"If you look at Singapore (36.61 kg per capita), for example, you see a nation that is richer per capita than Canada and also generates more e-waste per capita than Canada does."

While the global map doesn't trace where the electro-junk ends up, most provinces operate electronics takeback programs. And Lepawsky's research has found the majority of our e-waste heads to the U.S.: "But it does not stay there."

Instead, it enters an international market — especially China — hungry for bits of the stuff we lose a taste for.

Some Canadians are trying to increase the half-life of unwanted things. Enterprising organization in Toronto and Vancouver — freegeektoronto.org and freegeekvancouver.org — are looking to adopt out recycled computers and offer training to those who volunteer their time.

Lepawsky has little faith in the larger recycling initiatives underway across Canada, saying in many cases manufacturers are decreasing the reparability of devices.

"We can recycle all we want, but even if we consumers achieve 100% recycling, the discards from manufacturing electronics will still vastly outstrip what we consumers can achieve in terms of waste diversion via recycling," he believes.

"If people want new electronics, the materials to build them have to come from somewhere."

The question is how we want to do that.

And like doing without kitten-soft, plastic-wrapped three-ply when you need it the most, deciding to stop using all electronics doesn't seem to be a comfortable alternative.


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