The Real Story Behind Electronics Waste Recycling (March 9, 2011)

Cindy CouttsFeaturing Cindy Coutts
President, SIMS Recycling Solutions Canada

SIMS Recycling Solutions is the world’s largest electrical and electronics equipment recovery and recycling business.  It is an above-ground mining operation, taking end-of-life or redundant equipment and recovering valuable finite resources (including ferrous and non-ferrous metals, precious metals, glass, and plastics).

Our society’s dominant business model allows for our planet’s finite resources to be squandered.  Both valuable materials and harmful waste are sent to landfill or shipped overseas to developing countries where workers ignite and sniff toxic plastics to assess what has recycling value and what will be tossed on the ever growing mountain of waste.

Surely we can do better.  After all there’s a business case – waste is expensive!

Cindy Coutts, President of SIMS Canada, spoke to TSSS on March 9, 2011, and opened our eyes to the complex world of electronics recycling.  In our consumer driven society, where newer is almost always seen as better, there is a constant stream of electronics being discarded as waste.

Coutts shared the dark side of e-waste.  She explained that since most consumer goods are transported from China to North America, shipping costs are low on the return trip as many containers return empty.  With low shipping costs and low wages overseas (as low as $1/day), tonnes of e-waste can be shipped overseas and then sorted by poorly paid human labour, including child labour, under extremely hazardous working conditions.  The audience was shown images of workers perched precariously atop hazardous shredding machines or using a lighter to try to burn plastics, assessing the value of the plastic by whether it will ignite and if it does, by the smell of the toxic fumes as it burns.  There are not only significant human costs but also environmental costs as any waste that is not of economic value, including toxic and carcinogenic substances, is simply tossed aside.

Cindy Coutts at TSSS

To address such situations, there is a regulatory framework in place, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The 1989 Basel Convention is the most comprehensive global environmental agreement on hazardous and other wastes.  Yet, despite 175 signatories to the convention, transborder shipping of e-waste remains a lucrative business.

Until such time as regulators force companies to take ownership of their waste we are lucky to have a company like SIMS.  SIMS acts like a superstar goalie stopping both valuable resources and harmful waste from heading to landfill.  SIMS ensures that resources are reinserted back into the manufacturing stream, and that harmful products are not shipped overseas but rather are disposed of locally and safely.

SIMS’ success lies in their ability to reclassify what others see as waste as both resource and opportunity.  With state-of-the-art technology they separate and recover valuable resources in a cost effective way that more than offsets the costs of assuring safe disposal of the toxic and harmful substances embedded in the same e-waste.

SIMS understands that responsible recycling and disposal of e-waste requires a complete understanding of all downstream partners.  They track materials along every physical element of the chain until the material is ready to be incorporated in a new product at its final destination.  They conduct full physical audits of all downstream vendors to assure themselves, their clients and the public about responsible environmental outcomes.

Recent regulation in Ontario has introduced the Ontario Electronic Stewardship Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment program which requires a fee to be charged at point of purchase for end of life product handling.  The fee is determined by the type of item (e.g. laptop, television, radio) and is not impacted by the materials used or efforts made by the producer to design for ease of disassembly and/or recycling. For example, a laptop can require the removal of 27 screws in order to access the hazardous mercury bulb and remove it for safe disposal.  Since all laptops have the same fee added at point of sale, current regulations offer no incentive for a producer to make the removal of the bulb more efficient.

Coutts concluded by emphasizing that to ensure responsible recycling of e-waste, regulations must be designed with incentives for manufacturing decisions that consider a product’s full life cycle costs. In a closed loop system where end of life costs must be borne by the consumer, producers are compelled to innovate so they can reduce waste and facilitate recycling efforts so as to minimize these costs and compete more effectively in the marketplace.


On March 16, 2011, TSSS and SIMS coordinated a field trip to the world’s most advanced electronics recycling facility.  A group of over twenty TSSS sustainability enthusiasts had the opportunity to appreciate the huge task of shredding and sorting tonnes of e-waste for recycling – everything from cell phones and PDAs to computers, printers, radios, televisions, and medical equipment.

TSSS on a SIMS Facility Tour

It is one thing to hear about the work that SIMS does, but it was another entirely to see with our own eyes the efficiency of the SIMS operations, realizing that every item in these vast facilities, rather than being shipped overseas or discarded in landfill, was assured to be safely broken down into its component parts and either recovered, recycled or disposed of safely.   A big thank-you to SIMS, Cindy Coutts and Scott Hurren for such a positive experience for our first TSSS field trip.