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
currently have responsible recycling programs in place, British
Columbia will have one this summer and Nova
Scotia plans to launch one next February.