The trouble with tech trash

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It's a step in the right direction. After three months of operation, the Saskatchewan Waste Electronics Equipment Program (SWEEP) has already diverted more than 250 tons of waste computers, printers and televisions and recycled more than 30,000 pieces of electronics. Under these programs, residents can drop off eligible electronics products free of charge at collection sites across each province. An environmental fee ranging from $5 to $45 is charged on the sale of new electronics equipment and is used to collect, transport and recycle unwanted equipment, research new recycling technologies and build awareness and support

"Within probably five years, I suspect every province in Canada will have a (recycling) program running," says Betts. "Then consumers won't have any problems returning their electronic waste."

What can you do?
For Canadians living in the provinces with recycling programs, it's easy -- use the program. For the rest of the country, there are several choices: reduce, reuse and recycle.

Reduce: You can extend the life of some electronics, such as your computer, by upgrading, rather than replacing. Or maybe you can get by just fine with the system you already have. Avoid the temptation to buy a new model simply because it has some new bells and whistles. Not only will upgrading reduce waste, it will also save you money.

Reuse: First, try to determine whether someone else can use the equipment. Your laptop might be inadequate for your needs, but it would be perfect for a family member who only needs to check email. You can also donate to programs such as Computers for Schools or reBOOT Canada that collect, repair and refurbish computers and redistribute them to schools, libraries and non-profits.

A third option is check to see if the manufacturer has a take-back program. For example, HP Planet Partners or IBM Asset Recovery will take back most used systems for a fee, though some companies merely shred, rather than reuse, the returned equipment.

Recycle: Check with your municipality to learn about recycling options in your area. There may be private businesses that offer recycling services, but do your homework first. "There are a lot of quasi-organizations that claim to be recycling [your equipment] but in the end they're putting it on a container and shipping it off to China," says Maslo. While the Basel Convention prohibits signatories such as Canada from exporting hazardous waste to developing countries, unscrupulous recyclers circumvent this legality by trucking e-waste south of the border.

The Worldwatch Institute says that between 50 percent and 80 percent of American e-waste is shipped to China, India, Pakistan and Nigeria, where poor workers strip the valuable components such as copper and aluminum, then dump or burn what's left. So before dropping off your used equipment, ask the right questions -- are you shipping this somewhere and how do you process it? If a recycler offers you money for your system, walk away, suggests Betts.

The worst thing you can do is take it to the curb on garbage day. Not only are you making your data available for identity thieves but you're contributing to an already growing toxic problem.

Unless you're allergic to dust, the simplest idea might be to just store your old electronic equipment until a proper recycling program is in place. "To the extent that people can tolerate stuff cluttering up their basement, that's probably the best thing to do," says Bury. 


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