Canadian IT pros face recycling challenge

We all feel better about ourselves when we throw our plastic water bottles and chocolate bar wrappers in the recycle bin. But recycling is a business, like anything else, and there are good and bad practices. When it comes to the IT industry, however, bad practices have been going on for quite some time, as evidenced by landfills full of our e-waste piling up in third-world countries.

Even after the Basel Convention was ratified in 1992 (an international treaty addressing cleaner production and hazardous waste minimization), most e-waste is still ending up in the third world. According to the Basel Action Network, a California-based NGO that researches the illegal export and reuse market, a number of institutions and countries continue to undermine the Basel Convention’s Ban Decision and Amendment designed to end the dumping of hazardous wastes from rich to poorer nations, and Canada is on that list.

The problem with recycling

There’s no point in recycling unless you’re sure that what you’re doing is better than putting it in a landfill in the first place, said Frances Edmonds, director of environmental programs with HP Canada. “When you send electronics to a recycler, you have to audit that recycler and make sure they’re doing what they say they’re doing. It’s about accountability down the chain, because no one recycler does all the work.”

Recycling costs money, which means there are plenty of bad recycling practices out there. Notebooks, for example, contain at least one mercury bulb. Removing that bulb costs time and money, since the screws must be removed manually. After the bulb is removed, it’s considered hazardous waste, which then must be disposed of.

“It is manageable, we have the technology and resources to do this,” said Edmonds, “but many people who are less-than-scrupulous would ignore the fact that there’s a mercury bulb in there and just put the whole notebook through a shredder, not incurring the cost of having to remove it and the cost of having to recycle.”

And though times are changing, not all OEMs practice good recycling. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition was one of the first organizations to expose big-brand OEMs, including Apple Inc., of bad recycling practices. “Many manufacturers still haven’t accepted they have any responsibility at the post-customer stage,” said Edmonds. “If they accept that responsibility, it changes everything upstream.”

So what are we doing in Canada?

In Canada, waste is a provincial jurisdiction, so there’s no federal program. But Electronics Product Stewardship Canada (EPSC), an industry consortium involving the consumer electronics and IT industry, is attempting to harmonize end-of-life electronics programs across the country. This includes recycling standards and audit protocols to ensure end-of-life electronics are recycled in an environmentally safe manner.

In 2006 EPSC strengthened the Recycling Vendor Qualification Program (RVQP) to update the minimum requirements for managing end-of-life electronics. The program uses third-party audits to ensure environmentally conscious recycling through the entire supply chain and places limitations on the export of electronic scrap to third-world countries.

All existing provincial programs for electronics stewardship have incorporated the RVQP. As of February 2009, these programs have collectively diverted over 19,000 tons of electronics from landfills.

But the historical lack of strong standards and programs for end-of-life electronics has attracted unscrupulous players to export these materials for profit in a manner that does little to safeguard human health or the environment, said Lloyd Bryant, vice-chair and treasurer of EPSC (also HP Canada’s vice-president and general manager of the Imaging and Printing Group).

The federal government manages the Export and Import of Hazardous Waste and Hazardous Recyclable Materials regulations, which aim to curb the inappropriate export of end-of-life electronics. At the provincial level, new electronics stewardship programs have been introduced in Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and most recently Ontario (which launched April 1), backed by waste diversion and recycling policies. EPSC is working with regulators in other provinces to build similar programs.

Some of these products have toxins in them, which makes them difficult to dismantle. “You can appreciate that they’re complicated in the way they’re put together, so they’re complicated in the way they’re taken apart,” said Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario and director of Waste Diversion Ontario, which oversees the development of the program in Ontario. “There’s value in the precious metals, but to get at those precious metals there’s a certain amount of manual dismantling that has to happen.” There’s also variability in the nature of the products, from an eight-track right through to an iPod or BlackBerry. “There’s no standardization,” she said. “That’s part of what this program will address.” This includes tracking all products and component parts to the end of their life.

Closed-loop recycling

HP’s 80,000-square-foot inkjet cartridge recycling facility opened in Nashville in 2001. X-ray technology and proprietary software are used to identify each cartridge; because the system can’t identify the chemical composition of non-HP or refilled cartridges, these are treated as hazardous waste.

A vibrating cable orientates foam and plastics into a sink float (different materials have different buoyancies). HP is exploring output uses for foam, but the challenge is getting residual ink out (foam is currently used to fuel smelters or incinerated to provide steam energy). The cartridge then hits the “de-man” line. The de-manufactured cartridges are shipped to a facility in Indiana to remove any contaminants, then to a third facility in Montreal, called the Lavergne Group, where they’re mixed with plastic from recycled water bottles.

Since 2005, HP has produced 400 million cartridges with recycled plastic, which still meet industry standards. This is what’s referred to as a closed-loop system. Newer HP inkjet cartridges, for example, have been designed for end-of-life, so the number of components has been reduced by one-third, meaning it’s easier to separate and recycle them. Today, its inkjet cartridges have a minimum of 75 per cent recycled content, including water bottles, but HP is not yet recovering its recycling costs.

Lavergne Group has been in the recycling business for about 20 years and it’s now making inroads into more sophisticated applications, thanks to increasing demand for green products, but it’s still a challenge getting OEMs on board.

“There have been some bad stories about recycled plastics, so a lot of people are skeptical that you can do highly sophisticated applications with recycled materials and keep consistency and quality,” said Jean-Luc Lavergne, president of the Lavergne Group. However, the company’s proprietary recycling process allows products to go back into FDA-approved food applications, and it competes not with other recyclers, but producers of virgin resins, such as Dupont and BASF.

“Our challenge is not to make it,” he said. “It’s to get the OEMs to look at it. Because of what they’ve seen in the past, they don’t see there could be some possibilities.” Oil prices have dropped, but when they go back up, Lavergne says OEMs will be able to see savings of 10 to 25 per cent using recycled plastics.