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Canada’s e-waste problem needs a cleanup

Most recycling experts are at odds over resolving the problem



The e-waste problem is escalating and something has to be done about it. Most recycling companies agree to that much.

But some experts are at odds when it comes to deciding how exactly IT equipment should be disposed of, and whether it should be refurbished or resold.

Lynne Mack, recycling

operations manager for Toronto-based Logic Box, says the IT waste situation is growing worse by leaps and bounds. She estimates between 30 and 50 million computers will be disposed of in Canada in 2005-2006.

“”The lifecycle of a PC has dropped down to probably not much longer than two years – that is, people and corporations are now replacing PCs on an ever increasing basis to keep up with technology,”” she said. “”It’s almost one on one – for every one that’s sold, one is disposed of.””

According to IDC analyst John Stanisic, about 11.7 million PCs will be used in Canadian households this year. “”If you look at the numbers, that also translates into an estimate of just over half a million PCs that will be retired, or in another sense, trashed or thrown in the garbage; or they will be candidates for being refurbished, or having parts salvaged out of them,”” Stanisic said.

That’s a more conservative estimate than Mack’s, but those number’s don’t take into account the business side of computer disposal. IDC statistics indicate the average lifecycle of a PC in a Canadian corporation is about three-and-a-half years, Stanisic added. “”After that, businesses go out and buy new PCs to replace their aging install base. Many of those old PCs end up in the trash or they get donated to schools, or they get picked up by employees and taken home.””

A 2001 study on e-waste in Canada, submitted for the Information Technology Association of Canada by Toronto-based environmental consulting firm EnvirosRIS, mentions a number of for-profit and non-profit organizations currently touting IT equipment reuse and refurbishment as one possible solution to help reduce waste.

For example, IBM Canada last year launched two IT waste-prevention programs. One involves easy access to recycling and reuse opportunities; customers can return any manufacturer’s PC for $49.99, which covers the cost of shipping and proper disposal; or PCs might also be donated to Industry Canada’s Computers for Schools program. The second initiative, IBM’s Global Asset Recovery Services, enables mid- to large-sized customers to recycle their electronic gear. One of the options is to sell used and surplus equipment. The other possibility is to refurbish or upgrade assets.

EBay Canada’s computer category manager Casey Rovinelli, who majored in environmental economics at university, says he stands behind the idea of reselling used computer equipment online because it helps deal with the problem of products floating around without a market – equipment that would eventually end up in a landfill anyway. “”We (Ebay) can actually go in and say, ‘Hey, don’t landfill it – there’s actually somebody in Wichita that wants that, or someone in Thunder Bay who needs 50 routers. . . Working for eBay, you’re fairly ethically pure. You really don’t produce things; it’s just transactions. A big part of it is reusing and redistribution of goods.””

One recycling firm in Chicago argues the liability risks accompanying resale and refurbishment initiatives are way too high.

Intercon Technologies Inc. specializes in the demanufacturing of electronics, which the firm’s CEO Brian Brundage defined as “”taking apart the equipment the opposite way that it was put together.””

Brundage, who’s been in the scrap business for 15 years, said his firm’s sole mandate is to recycle equipment 100 per cent. “”We handle the material properly and make sure we can recycle it.””

Intercon will not resell any equipment or donate electronics for reuse because of U.S. environmental liability laws, Brundage said. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency’s Computer Takeback Campaign platform calls for producer responsibility in order to ensure the proper collection, reuse and recycling of discarded equipment, as well as the phase out of hazardous materials and an end to overseas export of electronic waste, among other things. EPA regulations stipulate a large corporation recycling more than 240 pounds of material must notify the government and keep that e-waste out of landfills, he explained.

Intercon’s customers would rather have the peace of mind that their material will be recycled properly, than face the possible consequences of handing used computers over to someone who might not bother disposing of them properly, he added.

“”If I took in a load of material and then sold what was good off the load, I’m really not releasing my customer of any environmental liability. At that point I’ve resold something to go to somebody else. I don’t know what that other person will do with that monitor or CPU. They might end up using it for two years and then smuggling it into their trash.””

If the equipment does end up in the landfill, a serial number could track it back to the original owner, who, without a certificate proving it was recycled, is liable for that landfill cleanup, he said.

The equipment might also be shipped to another country, where it could end up in a landfill after a couple of years, he added. “”Taking it in and shipping it off to some other country, or bringing it into a landfill isn’t solving the problem. Our environment is not just North America,”” he said.

Mack said Logic Box, by reselling used PCs, is opening up a whole new market for channel players who target market segments where full-priced machines are not a viable alternative. “”Some of our customers are school boards, Computer for Schools, hospitals. These are organizations that are strapped for cash. A dealer can come to us and purchase these machines in bulk and then they are set up to go into organizations that don’t have the budgets for brand new machines,”” Mack said. Margins are tight, she added, which means resellers have to concentrate on high-volume sales.

But Brundage was critical of the resale of PCs for charitable purposes. “”Some companies do a certain amount of charity business, but it’s not their whole business,”” he said. “”In my opinion, those people are taking tax write offs. Reselling is a good business, especially if you’re getting it for nothing or getting paid to take it, but it doesn’t solve the problem.””

Both Brundage and Mack agreed that current IT recycling initiatives are a good start – but they’re not enough. “”Right now recycling is a remedial activity. We are fixing a problem that is growing, but it’s already there,”” Mack said, adding that manufacturers also need to start designing more environmentally-friendly technology. “”Manufacturers are relying on a proprietary position and they’re really not concerned about extending the life of their product. But they have to start thinking beyond whatever their business objectives are if they don’t want consumer backlash.””