Even though unwanted electronics can be recycled, the problem is that they often aren't. There's no compelling regulation in Canada that penalizes manufacturers and distributors of e-waste for failing to adopt a cradle-to-grave management strategy for their products, and little incentive provided to private entrepreneurs who want to recycle old computer parts. (AP)
Going green? Ask questions before buying electronics
Last Updated April 22, 2008
By Scott Valentine
Manufacturers are putting more emphasis on building energy-efficient computers for both individuals and businesses, as well as designing equipment so that it's easier to dismantle and recycle. (AP)
If you're like the average consumer, when you think of the "green" movement and what you can do to participate it's probably blue bins, composting and fuel efficiency that spring to mind. But you might be surprised at the number of ways Canadian consumers and businesses can cut both their energy consumption and "e-waste," the environmental refuse related to technology and electronics.
It's surprising how much of a computer and its related peripheral gear can actually be recycled: the monitor, mouse, keyboard, printer, and much of the wiring and casing. Plus, there are the associated routers, modems, removable hard drives ... the list of recyclable computer equipment is a long one.
And all this old gear doesn't just create an enormous trash pile if it's not retired properly — castoff electronics can contain nasty substances that can harm people and the environment. A typical computer monitor may contain more than six per cent lead by weight, for example.
Even though unwanted electronics can be recycled, the problem is that they often aren't.
Some of the waste goes straight into local landfills. Some is exported to other nations that have lax environmental regulations. The United States Environmental Protection Agency says that 61 per cent of U.S. e-waste is sent to foreign countries, where it is burned by poorly paid labourers who inhale toxic fumes in the process. According to the Basel Action Network, a non-profit agency dedicated to bringing countries in line with the Basel Convention, Canada and the U.S. are the only developed countries in the world that have failed to control export of hazardous electronic waste to developing countries.
Canada is well behind places such as the EU when it comes to e-waste management. There's no compelling regulation in Canada that penalizes manufacturers and distributors of e-waste for failing to adopt a cradle-to-grave management strategy for their products, and little incentive provided to private entrepreneurs who want to make a living out of recycling your old computer parts.
Though some provinces and regions, such as Alberta and more recently Saskatchewan, have e-waste policies in place, it's not mandatory for them to do so. And while Ontario considers a government panel recommendation to impose an e-waste levy, many of its municipalities have already begun to turn to private contractors to manage their IT junk.
"You have individual municipalities negotiating e-waste management contracts with private contractors," says Mike Nagy, the Green party's shadow cabinet critic for the environment and a Guelph Centre candidate. He is among those pushing for a cohesive e-waste disposal strategy for the country.
Nagy think there's a good argument to be made for competition among private e-waste management companies, but worries about a lack of government support and the repercussions of quick-fix exporting measures. "We'd be doing a lot of people a favour by investing in an e-waste co-payment program that creates jobs locally and stops sending our old parts to poor nations where cheap labour burns them down in unsafe conditions."
Dollars and sense
Due to gaps in Canada's e-waste management strategy, consumers and private business are forced to pick up the slack in the reduce-reuse-recycle chain.
In the absence of government disposal regulations, for example, people can use their buying power to push manufacturers to adopt greener approaches to their products. This can be as simple as asking questions before buying — look for eco-labels on products that indicate how they were made and what parts can be recycled, and ask about a manufacturer's e-waste management programs.
Some manufacturers are trying to address the problem — and some retailers already have dismantle-and-dispose programs in place that will take your old computer off your hands, break it down to its essential parts, reuse or recycle whatever is possible and safely dispose of the rest. Apple recycled about 17 million tonnes of e-waste in 2007, The Source has an e-waste program, and Dell Canada has partnered with the National Recycling Coalition to help shape the future of e-waste disposal in Canada. The Rogers Phones-for-Food program donates revenue from its recycling program to food banks, and cellphones bought at Rogers and Fido stores come with postage-paid recycling envelopes.
Politicians from the left to the right have started discussing the role of technology as a catalyst for environmental awareness and sustainability. Influential lobby groups, such as the David Suzuki Foundation, have also weighed in. Suzuki was the keynote speaker at the You, Me and Green IT conference held in Toronto on April 9 and 10.
"Every corporation is trying to green themselves," Suzuki told CBCnews.ca via e-mail. "I'm busy trying to say I want to get to where being green isn't a bragging issue because it's the only way of doing things."
Then there's how we use electronic stuff. For example, something as simple as setting your computer to go into "Sleep" mode rather than displaying a screen saver can dramatically reduce your computer's daily energy consumption and extend the useful life of your equipment. When you're not using a computer or peripheral, turn it off.
Companies can also play a role with their buying decisions. Both small and large businesses can reduce IT costs by adopting new technologies such as "virtualization," a low-intensity, energy-saving way of managing big computer networks. Companies such as Toronto-based Platespin (recently sold to Novell) and Vancouver's Strangeloop Networks have leapt into the green IT space with business solutions that help reduce the number of servers and the energy it takes to run things such as power-hungry Web 2.0 applications.
That computer at your fingertips is getting more environmentally friendly, too. Manufacturers are building more energy-efficient machines for both individuals and businesses, as well as designing equipment so that it's easier to dismantle and recycle. Again, it pays to ask some questions before you buy.
According to its technical specifications, for example, Apple's thin new MacBook Air consumes less power than any other Mac to date, features a mercury-free LCD display, PVC-free internal cabling and is encased in a recycling-friendly aluminum enclosure. Even Greenpeace, which traditionally reviles all things corporate, has said publicly that the Air is an important step in the right direction for the greening of IT.
And cellphone maker Nokia now provides "Eco Declarations" for its products, giving people information such as the energy efficiency and materials used in a handset.
Youth's place in the eco-equation
Making smart buying decisions is important, because when all is said and done, the future of Canada's e-waste may have less to do with federal policy or corporate responsibility than it does with personal habits — particularly those of the powerful new youth consumer demographic.
Canada's youth have been raised with an awareness of things such as recycling, global warming and alternative fuels that far exceeds the education of previous generations, and they are also among the biggest consumers of IT products and services on the planet. That means that, despite their heightened environmental awareness, young consumers are also among the biggest producers of e-waste.
"Young people consume a lot of products," Nagy says, "... but for the most part, they're not properly disposed of because we have no e-waste program in Canada."
While the hand-held and console-based gaming, personal digital music player and mobile phone markets are not exclusive to young people, their sales are certainly heavily weighted in the youth demographic. Draw a circle around 10- to 29-year-olds in Canada and you've captured about 25 per cent of the population, but as much as half of the spending in Canada's consumer electronics market, according to researchers such as Forrester.
These are must-have products for many young people, and they're also products that tend to become obsolete quickly. As today's tech-savvy youth get older, the challenge of managing e-waste is only going to get bigger unless there's push to change how electronics products are made and marketed.
"It's unfortunate," says the Green party's Nagy. "I was at a discussion with some young people the other day and we were talking about audio headphones, how you buy the main item [the player] and that's good quality, but you pay $30 for headphones that last two months."
In Suzuki's mind, environmental consciousness will really take hold in Canada only when "thinking green" moves beyond popular consumer sentiment, and extends through business — IT and otherwise — and beyond the realm of political rhetoric. "In the ideal scenario, all parties will be green."
The author is a Canadian freelance writer.
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