Technology & Science

Feds scrap tonnes of toxic tech junk yearly: report

The federal government scraps more than 2,000 tonnes of computers, fax machines, monitors and other gear each year — toxic junk that could take a year and a half to dispose of in a recycling program, according to a secret report.

The federal government annually scraps about 2,045 tonnes of toxic tech junk — computers, fax machines, monitors and other electronics gear — roughly the weight of 225 school buses.

The figures are contained in an internal Public Works Department report, dated August 2007 and marked "secret." It was prepared by the public works office dedicated to greening government operations.

The Canadian Press obtained it through the Access to Information Act.

"The federal government is one of the largest single generators of end-of-life IT equipment in Canada," according to the report released Tuesday in Ottawa. "There is no comprehensive mechanism in the federal government to address environmentally responsible disposal of IT equipment."

Canada's environment commissioner estimated the federal government spends $500 million every year on new computer hardware and replacing old equipment. Electronics contain toxic substances such as lead, cadmium and mercury, which can cause environmental and health problems if not handled properly.

Used electronics go to refurbishing program

Currently, 80 to 90 per cent of used government electronics go to a federal program that refurbishes them and then sends them to schools and libraries. The rest are sold to recyclers and scrap dealers. But the Computer for Schools program doesn't accept all items.

Officials from Industry Canada, the department that oversees Computers for Schools, weren't immediately available to comment on how the program handles the high volume of used government electronics donated each year and what becomes of the equipment when schools have no more use for it.

The United Nations estimates that between 20 million and 50 million tonnes of electronic waste is generated worldwide each year. Electronic garbage often ends up in the poorer Asian and African countries, where workers and the environment are exposed to the accompanying toxins.

Electronics recycling infrastructure is developing but is currently poorly distributed, and operating standards are unclear, the report noted.

The government announced earlier this year that  it plans to launch a recycling program to dispose of electronics responsibly, but it will cost up to $35 million, and won't be in place until 2010.

The latest Public Works report said the government plans to  phase in its recycling program by starting with computer equipment and expanding in the third year to electronics, including BlackBerrys and TVs.