Technology & Science

Federal government considers electronics recycling plan

The federal government is contemplating a $35-million recycling program to keep its obsolete and unwanted computers and other electronics gear out of the country's landfills, say newly released documents.

The federal government is contemplating a $35-million recycling program to keep its obsolete and unwanted computers and other electronics gear out of the country's landfills, say newly released documents.

A draft analysis by the Public Works Department says a federal scheme is needed because some provinces lack programs to allow Ottawa to safely dispose of its used computers, fax machines and cellular phones.

"A federal program is still necessary over the next five years to ensure the end of life management of federal government IT equipment as … there is no guarantee as to when all provinces and the territories will have take-back programs in place," says the analysis drafted last September.

Electronics products contain toxic elements such as lead, cadmium and mercury, which can cause environmental and health problems if not handled properly, but recycling is piecemeal across the country.

Alberta's provincial government has run an electronic waste recycling program since 2005. British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia have industry-run programs. A similar program in Ontario is to begin next April. The remaining provinces rely on municipal drives, charities, retail take-back programs and private companies to safely dispose of electronic waste.

The industry-run programs only recycle computers, printers and televisions, although Nova Scotia will add telecommunications equipment to its list next year.

The federal government may be anxious to dispose of its used electronics and doesn't want to wait for the regional programs to catch up, said Jay Illingworth of the industry group Electronics Product Stewardship Canada.

"They may be in a situation where they want a broad range of electronics to be recycled right off the bat, whereas the (provincial) programs are ramping up, kind of getting their feet under them first," Illingworth said.

It is not known how much electronic waste the federal government generates each year. No one from Public Works was immediately available to comment.

However, the environment commissioner has said the federal government spends $500 million a year on new computer hardware.

Public Works' website says approximately 80 per cent to 90 per cent of Ottawa's electronic waste is handled by a federal program that refurbishes government electronics and then sends them to schools and libraries. The department sells the rest to recyclers and scrap dealers.

However, the Public Works analysis says the federal "Computers for Schools" program is limited in its scope and mandate.

"It does not address the end-of-life management (recycling and resource recovery), nor encompass the broader range of IT equipment."

Consequently, "There is currently no comprehensive strategy to address electronic waste in federal government operations."

The draft analysis, prepared by the Public Works office dedicated to greening government operations, was obtained by the Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

It estimates the program to recycle the federal government's electronics will cost $30 million to $35 million over five years.

The United Nations estimates that between 20 million and 50 million tonnes of electronic waste is generated worldwide each year — enough to load a train that would stretch around the globe.

Achim Steiner, who heads the UN environment program, recently told a UN conference on waste management in Bali, Indonesia, the growth in electronics is unlikely to abate any time soon. Much of the electronic garbage ends up in the poorer Asian and African countries, where workers and the environment are exposed to the accompanying toxins.