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The trouble with tech trash

North Americans love technology. What was once seen as a luxury (think cellphones, laptops and home theatre systems) has now gone mainstream. It's also become disposable. Nowadays, it's often cheaper and more convenient to buy a new computer than it is to upgrade or repair an old one, and the average lifespan of a computer has dropped from an average of five years to two. The question is: What happens to this old equipment once it's been made obsolete or abandoned for a newer model?

Unfortunately, much of it ends up in landfills. Environment Canada says Canada is a large contributor of e-waste, dumping more than 140,000 tons of computer equipment, phones, audio-visual equipment and small household appliances into landfills each year. This doesn't only make an unsightly pile of monitors, keyboards and cables -- it's a recipe for environmental contamination. This abandoned equipment is loaded with heavy metals, plastic compounds and chemicals such as brominated flame-retardants -- toxins that are linked to neurological disorders, endocrine disruption and even cancer -- that eventually leach into our soil and groundwater or pollute our air.

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"There are significant levels of toxic substances contained in this equipment," says Duncan Bury, head of product policy, environmental stewardship branch, at Environment Canada. The personal computers and televisions discarded each year account for an estimated 4,750 tons of lead (largely from cathode ray tube, or CRT, monitors) while personal computers alone contain an estimated 4.5 tons of cadmium and 1.1 tons of mercury. "These are significant quantities of heavy metals which, quite frankly, we don't want put at risk of being released into the environment," he says.

A growing problem
While e-waste currently accounts for approximately 1 percent to 2 percent of Canada's municipal waste, the problem will only get bigger. "It's the fastest growing waste stream," says Dennis Maslo, founder of Computation Ltd., a Toronto-based computer recycler and refurbisher. "Technology with integrated circuits is part of our life. Every home has a couple hundred pounds of it."

Rapid advances in technology mean that computers and peripheral equipment are made obsolete quicker. For example, a study by the National Recycling Coalition in the United States found that more than 500 million personal computers will have become obsolete by 2007. A recent report released by Softchoice Corp. found that 50 percent of computers surveyed (112,000 desktops across North America) did not meet the minimum system requirements of Microsoft's new Vista operating system and 94 percent were unable to support its premium configuration.

Creating a "made in Canada" solution is complicated by the nature of our national waste management strategy: While the federal government regulates against the import and export of hazardous materials, it's the provincial governments that are responsible for managing landfills and recycling programs.

"Not all provinces are at the same stage in the evolution of waste management. Different politicians have different priorities," says Dave Betts, president and CEO of Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, an industry-led, non-profit organization that promotes a national e-waste management program.

That said, several provinces have initiatives under way to address the e-waste issue: Alberta and Saskatchewan currently have responsible recycling programs in place, British Columbia will have one this summer and Nova Scotia plans to launch one next February.

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-- Posted: May 7, 2007
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