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Environment Canada says Canadians toss out more than 140,000 tonnes of computer equipment, phones, televisions, stereos, and small home appliances a year. 
(Steve Yeater/AP). Environment Canada says Canadians toss out more than 140,000 tonnes of computer equipment, phones, televisions, stereos, and small home appliances a year. (Steve Yeater/AP)

In Depth

Technology

Making sense of e-waste

With electronics-related waste set to triple, Ontario plans levy on new gear

Last Updated April 2, 2008

That brand new, sleek computer you just unwrapped is going to look great and work so much better than the pokey piece of junk it replaces — but there's just one problem: how are you going to dispose of the obsolete machine?

AP photo While they contain toxic substances, the old computers, cellphones and TV sets Canadians send to landfills each year are also full of useful ferrous metals, as well as things like aluminum, copper, gold and silver that can be separated and reclaimed. (Steve Yeater/AP)

Most Canadians put unwanted electronic gadgets out in the trash, but that simply gets them out of sight. A solution, as British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia have already realized, is to divert the e-waste stream away from landfills and into recycling plants. Now Ontario is poised to dramatically change the way its inhabitants buy and dispose of electronics, joining other jurisdictions across Canada and Europe where this has been commonplace for years.

In Canada, the volume of electronic waste is staggering. We toss out more than 140,000 tonnes of computer equipment, phones, televisions, stereos, and small home appliances a year.

Environment Canada puts the annual volume of electronic waste into clearer perspective by pointing out that it's equal to "the weight of 28,000 adult African elephants, or enough uncrushed electronic waste to fill up the Toronto Rogers Centre every 15 years."

Many of those seemingly harmless bits of old electronic gear also contain nasty hidden toxins. The gadgets Canadians toss out each year are estimated to put 4,750 tonnes of lead, 4.5 tonnes of cadmium and 1.1 tonnes of mercury into landfills, all of which are at risk of leaching into our ground water. These toxic substances are linked to things such as kidney damage and neurological impairment.

And Environment Canada says this waste stream is expected to triple in volume over the next five years.

Ontario's e-waste strategy

While they contain toxic substances, those old computers, cellphones and TV sets are also full of useful ferrous metals, aluminum and copper, not to mention gold and silver — worth good money to a booming commodities market. Waste Diversion Ontario is a provincial agency mandated to formulate a strategy to get that usable trash out of landfills. For the past two years, it has been working with retailers, computer and electronic makers and importers, and now the results are ready to be put into play.

'We need an incentive to make it easy and convenient for e-waste collection and disposal.'
— WDO's Glenda Gies

WDO's plan, which went to the Ontario minister of environment March 31 and is expected get a fairly swift passage through the legislature, is to apply a levy to all electronics sold in Ontario to pay for their proper recycling and disposal. The proposed levy would be about $12 for a desktop, $2 for a laptop, $10 for a TV and $11 for a computer monitor.

"We need an incentive to make it easy and convenient for e-waste collection and disposal," says Glenda Gies, executive director of WDO. "When you buy a new TV, the store will deliver it and take your old one back to the store. They'll be paid to collect the old electronics, and a truck will come by and pick it all up for recycling."

There will also be drop off points where consumers can take their obsolete equipment for free disposal.

While nothing has been finalized, WDO is hoping to make partnerships with retailers and the not-for-profit sector outlets like the Salvation Army and Goodwill, since the plan is to offer a small revenue stream to those who offer facilities for drop-off.

The plan has drawn some criticism, because it proposes that the levy be charged to the customer and not the manufacturer or importer. But Jay Illingworth, director of Electronic Products Stewardship Canada (the industry agency that has been working with the WDO and other provincial agencies), says consumers in provinces where similar plans have been adopted don't seem to mind the concept of a disposal fee.

"They pay a levy which goes to a non-profit agency to pay for recycling in B.C., Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia," says Illingworth. "They feel they're doing their part."

He adds that the plan for Ontario hasn't been finalized, so it hasn't yet been determined whether the consumer will pay levy on top of the purchase price, or whether the amount will simply be rolled into the shelf price of products.

Manufacturers on board

AP photo Waste Diversion Ontario's plan, which went to the Ontario minister of environment March 31 and is expected get a fairly swift passage through the legislature, is to apply a levy to all electronics sold in Ontario to pay for their proper recycling and disposal. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The concept seems to be meeting little resistance from manufacturers. In fact, several of the big computer manufacturers anticipated it and have already been addressing the issue of e-waste on their own. Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computers and Lenovo, for example, represent the lion's share of computer products and peripherals sold in Canada, and both have had recycling programs in place for the past couple of years.

HP says it recycled more than 113 million kilograms of technology hardware and print cartridges globally last year, 50 per cent more than 2006. In the Americas the company says it recycled about 30 million kilograms of equipment. It also has a fee-based collection system geared for corporate clients who need to dispose of equipment, says Frances Edmonds, director of environmental programs at Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd. in Mississauga.

"This is an issue the IT industry — anyone in electronics — needs to face head on," says Edmonds, pointing out that it's important for all players in the production chain to get on board, including suppliers of parts.

She adds that efforts are being made to make electronics easier to dismantle and recycle. HP is also using recycled plastic as a source for its inkjet print cartridges, making more than 200 million such cartridges last year with between 70 and 100 per cent recycled plastic. "We've been trying to get the design right so it's less of a problem at the back end."

Mike Pierce, director of environmental affairs at Lenovo, says the company offers free electronics recycling in many countries. In Canada, it will pick up any brand of computer for recycling for a small fee, and in return gives people a discount towards a Lenovo purchase.

Lenovo is phasing out specific chemicals used in manufacturing to ensure the machines produce fewer toxic byproducts. It is also increasing the amount of recycled materials in the machines themselves and in packaging.

Dell Canada, another major electronics company, has a free pick up program for customers who have bought a new Dell product. Customers fill in an online form and pack the equipment for pick up.

The goal is to start reclaiming some of the materials we have been throwing away, says HP's Edmonds. "Think of it as an above ground mine for all those materials."

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