Canadian companies ponder best options for e-waste

Obsolete computers and peripherals are piling up across North America at an alarming rate.

More than 42,000 tonnes of electronic waste, or e-waste, will be generated by Canadian homes and businesses in 2005, according to Environment Canada. Of that, almost 18,000 tonnes will be reused, 4,280

tonnes will be warehoused indefinitely and more than 14,000 tonnes will be recycled, leaving more than 23,000 tonnes to be disposed of — in some way.

Of the total IT waste that will be disposed of, PCs and servers will account for an estimated 23,400 tonnes, monitors will account for an estimated 24,475 tonnes, peripherals (scanners, printers, etc.) will account for about 17,400 tonnes and laptops will account for about 2,100 tonnes.

In 1999, about 34,000 tonnes of IT equipment waste was disposed of with almost half – 15,600 tonnes – being recycled.

No one doubts e-waste is a serious problem that demands serious action, says Dave Betts, interim program manager of e-recycling for the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC). How that problem will be resolved, though, depends on who you talk to, he says.

“”The (federal) government says it doesn’t have any money to finance (a solution), so does that mean we have to go out and negotiate with the more than 5,000 municipalities in Canada? That doesn’t make sense,”” he says. Each municipality sets it own rates for recycling and the negotiations could become complicated.

“”We’d prefer to establish one set price for each category of equipment standardized across the country,”” says Betts.

Environment Canada supports ITAC and the IT industry at large in terms of studying the issue and making proposals to provincial and federal governments vis-a-vis recycling, according to Betts.

“”Computers are reasonably green products,”” he says. “”Unfortunately, they can’t be disposed of or refurbished in a profitable way.””

Shelley Whatmore doesn’t agree. The president and founder of Calgary-based Maxus Technology Inc., says e-recycling can be profitable provided three key requirements are met: federal legislation banning e-waste from landfill sites; an association to audit recyclers to ensure compliance; and, public awareness. “”ITAC has been discussing different options (because) they don’t want to put the responsibility completely on the consumer,”” Whatmore says.

Maxus, founded in 1994 as a telecommunications equipment refurbishing company, opened an e-recycling branch of its operations last August.

“”We decided to take the next step and ensure (Canadian) e-waste is properly disposed of domestically,”” she says. “”This is a very serious problem . . . I hope a national plan can be achieved in a quick manner, but I’m doubtful it will happen (quickly).””

There is growing concern about the volume of potentially hazardous substances contained in e-waste entering the municipal solid waste stream, says Environment Canada spokesperson Michael Vanderpol.

“”There’s tonnes of lead and cadmium in this equipment that could potentially migrate off-site and contaminate water tables or it could spread through the contamination of birds,”” he says.

Vanderpol says a national steering committee, consisting of both government and industry players, was established more than a year ago to tackle the issue of IT waste. Several options have been discussed, with a view to creating a national strategy all parties can support. A working draft of that plan is expected to be available to the public in early 2004.

“”I agree that a national, consistent approach is needed and that’s what we’re trying to develop,”” Vanderpol says. “”Bear in mind, a lot of the corporations on board are doing so voluntarily. Large corporations such as the HPs, IBMs and Sonys of the world have a corporate image to protect and they don’t want their equipment – through no fault of their own – ending up in China causing environmental problems.””

Meanwhile, Betts says the Canadian IT industry has been proactive in its efforts to deal with e-waste. In fact, ITAC is participating in the national steering committee to help come up with a remedy.

“”There’s an awful lot of work being done by this industry to regulate itself, given there’s no regulations to deal with this problem in Canada,”” he says.

Frances Edmonds, Hewlett-Packard Canada’s manager of employees, health and safety, says manufacturers are primarily concerned that there’s a level playing field among computer makers for any national recycling program.

“”(Within HP), we’re developing a plan that makes sense and one that gets the best economic value for our customers while doing what’s best for the environment,”” says Edmonds, who is also chair of the national steering committee dealing with e-waste. “”One of the common misconceptions about recycling is that it’s for free. It’s not for free, it costs quite a bit.””

Karen Asp, director of policy and communications for the Recycling Council of British Columbia in Vancouver, says Canada’s e-recycling infrastructure is weak and immature. To ensure it takes off, she says a stronger program, guaranteeing manufacturer responsibility, is needed.

“”It comes down to a lack of (planning) on the part of the IT industry that is actually producing these computers with respect to the disassembling of them,”” Asp says.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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