Got e-junk going to China?

Every year, more than 140,000 tonnes – the equivalent of 7,000 dump trucks – of PCs, laptops, monitors, printers and other computer peripherals are trundled off to recycling depots or landfills. These products are called e-waste and Canada’s portion of the global pile is growing. By 2010, the country’s homes and businesses will collectively produce more than 400,000 tonnes of this e-junk.I was under the impression that technology recycling was an issue corporate Canada had well in hand. I assumed businesses hired a recycler who safely dismantled the old technology, salvaging those parts that can be reused and responsibly disposing of any bits of remaining toxic waste. But a recent trip to Noranda’s recycling facility in Brampton, Ont., unearthed the ugly underbelly of how some technology recyclers divert e-waste.
A group of journalists was invited by Hewlett-Packard to learn about its end-of-life strategy for the technology it sells to Canadian customers. On a global scale, HP has recycled more than 750 million pounds of computer electronics since 1987 using depots such as Noranda’s.
During the presentation, we watched clips from a 2002 documentary entitled, “Exporting Harm: The High Tech Trashing of Asia.” Produced by the Basel Action Network (BAN), an international network of activists seeking to prevent the globalization of toxic chemicals, the documentary exposed how some recycling companies are using offshore outsourcing to shirk their corporate and environmental responsibilities.
The film followed the journey of European e-waste as it made its way to Guiyu, a small village in the Guangdong province of China where electrical waste from the west was routinely shipped. The people of Guiyu get paid about a dollar a day to break discarded computers and other electronic goods into component materials of steel, aluminum, copper, plastic and gold. The workers are exposed to lead and mercury and the poisonous waste also makes its way into the land and water. Guiyu’s soil contains 200 times the level of lead considered hazardous.
There’s some light at the bottom of the green bin, though. Several technology manufacturers have demonstrated their commitment to developing a program to divert e-waste from disposal by ensuring it is properly recycled. The program puts the onus on the equipment producers, not the purchasers, to properly manage their products at the post-consumer stage.
But this doesn’t mean corporate users are off the hook. With so many white boxes being moved in such a highly competitive market, technology buyers need to understand, in detail, the end-of-life strategy adopted by your technology provider.
E-waste is Canada’s fastest growing waste stream and with the frenetic pace of product upgrades, this problem will get more complicated as time goes on.
Computing Canada wants to know how your company disposes of its obsolete technology. Write to us at ccedit@itbusiness.ca and we’ll profile the most interesting and innovative stories we receive in a feature article on e-waste slated for early in 2006.

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