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The trouble with tech trash

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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.

“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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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. 

Fiona Wagner is a freelance writer in Georgetown, Ont.