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Electronic Waste

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Electronic Waste

Dumps in Canada and abroad are piled high with outdated equipment, cables, monitors, and other bulky goods. As if this isn't bad enough, some of these items contain chemicals, heavy metals, and plastics known to cause big-ticket trouble including cancer, neurological disorders, hormone disruption, and kidney failure.

When Julie Murphy tipped coffee onto her laptop, this Vancouverite swore a blue streak, cringing at the thought of relegating her baby to the trash bin. In her search for another option, she stumbled onto a major environmental issue: electronic waste.

Dumps in Canada and abroad are piled high with outdated equipment, cables, monitors, and other bulky goods. As if this isn’t bad enough, some of these items contain chemicals, heavy metals, and plastics known to cause big-ticket trouble including cancer, neurological disorders, hormone disruption, and kidney failure.

Poisons in Your PC

The average computer contains more than 30 toxic elements and other compounds, according to 1996 data from the US-based Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation.

Beryllium, a cancer causer, is hidden in your motherboard. Old cathode ray-tube colour monitors contain phosphor, a hexavalent chromium damaging to DNA, and 1 to 2 kg of lead, which is also found in your keyboard’s printed circuit board.

Newer flat-screen liquid crystal display colour monitors have up to 50 grams of mercury. Cadmium is in laptop batteries, and the plastic in casing and circuit boards contain brominated flame retardants, toxins damaging to the nervous system and stored in the fat cells of humans and animals. The list goes on and on.

Environment Canada estimates that 1.1 tons of mercury, 4.4 tons of cadmium, and 4,750 tons of lead are trashed as computer waste each year.

Solution Software

Most experts say these toxins pose little immediate danger to typical keyboard addicts, but after two decades of dumping computers and other e-waste into landfills, it’s pretty obvious someone has to take responsibility for this multifaceted problem.

On one front, 16 electronic manufacturers, including Canadian divisions of Apple, Epson, Hitachi, and Sony, have formed the nonprofit organization Electronic Products Stewardship Canada. Their website (epsc.ca) says they’re developing a national program to design, promote, and implement sustainable solutions.

Meanwhile, what if you’re storing old electronic junk? If you live in Burnaby, BC, you can do what Julie Murphy did with her computer and drop it off as part of a new recycling pilot project. As of April 2006, the city’s facility accepts computer cases (CPU), laptops, servers, modems, monitors, printers, keyboards, mice, UPS battery back-up units, computer components, fax machines, desktop copiers, and cell phones.

The project is going so well that they have no plans of stopping, says Bill Carey, Burnaby’s superintendent of solid waste. However, Carey says they sometimes receive material that’s nonrecyclable, such as printer ribbons and ink cartridges, which can leak and make handling difficult.

“We still get lots of people giving televisions. At this point, I’m not sure of anyone who recycles them. Hopefully we can do something with them in the future,” he adds.

Burnaby’s program began in response to public demand and in collaboration with Techno Trash Recycling (technotrashrecycling.com), a company that specializes in e-waste management and has a zero-waste policy where nothing goes to landfill. They “de-manufacture” equipment in an environmentally friendly way and then resell plastics, metals, and glass to industry. Reusable computers and parts are refurbished by The Computer Recycling Society (computerrecyclingsociety.org) and distributed to local and international charities.

More Recycle/Reuse Resources

If you don’t live in Burnaby, Techno Trash has other drop-off points in BC and Alberta. A quick Internet browse offers numerous venues for more responsible electronic disposal in Canada, such as the reSource Project (resourceproject.org), which services Ontario and redistributes electronics to needy people and groups in Canada and abroad. And hey, ask your computer maker directly if they accept older versions; some brands do. Hewlett-Packard’s recycling program accepts a variety of hardware, print cartridges, and rechargeable batteries (hp.ca/recycle).

Another option is Computers for Schools (cfs-ope.ic.gc.ca), a government-supported initiative that finds computers new homes in schools and libraries. A similar nonprofit service is reBOOT Canada (reboot.on.ca), which has distributed over 60,000 pieces of computer equipment to charities across Canada since 1996.

The World Computer Exchange (worldcomputerexchange.org) has contacts in 40 North American cities. They issue charitable receipts for working Pentium II or newer computers and ship them to 32 developing countries.

On the prevention side of things, ask yourself: Can I upgrade my equipment rather than buy new? Should I stick with the working cell phone I have? If either answer is yes, you’re not only supporting e-waste reduction, you’re also unplugging from the cultural obsession that puts the latest and greatest gizmos ahead of a healthy environment.

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