Computer recycling still hard

Tracey Hyndman has been trying to take out the garbage for six months now, but she just can’t bear to do it.

That’s because her garbage includes five eight-year-old computers and monitors that she knows must be recyclable.

“They are just sitting in my back stock room,” said the general manager of Small Planet Inc., a group dedicated to creating environmentally friendly baby products and recycling programs. “I haven’t found anything. I have asked around, I have looked in the telephone book and the Yellow Pages. There’s just nothing.”

Storing those computers in her stock room instead of throwing them in a landfill doesn’t seem like a bad idea, after reading research that shows that many old computers and monitors contain potentially toxic materials including mercury, lead, cadmium, beryllium, hexavalent chromium, brominated flame retardants, PCBs and polyvinyl chloride. Around 10 million computers in Canadian businesses, homes and educational institutions, with typical life spans of three to five years, make up the about one per cent of total solid waste from residential areas.

“Given that the company I work for is environmentally oriented and I am environmentally oriented, I just can’t bring myself to toss these things into a landfill when I know there has got to be some reusable components inside them,” Hyndman said. “It just doesn’t seem right.”

Hyndman has every right to be concerned about what happens after the computer equipment goes to the curb, says Burkhard Mausberg, executive director of the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund.

Mausberg said it is difficult to gauge exactly how dangerous it is to send computer equipment to a landfill because it all depends on what other chemicals are present on the site.

“If there is some solvent or acid that can leach out the computer’s equipment, there is a fair amount of lead going to come out,” he said, adding that lead is a known neurotoxin that causes severe development problems in children. Average computer monitors contain 0.7 to 2.7 kilograms of lead.

But the toxic dangers associated with throwing out computer equipment shouldn’t be the only incentive to finding a better solution, he said. People should start to equate throwing away computer equipment with throwing away money.

“We are trying to identify them as a real resource,” he said. “It can save a lot of pollution going out, but the end goal is to have all computers disassembled and have the metals taken out. We realized that we could help industry by, rather than digging up a ton of ore and nickel, giving them a ton of computer boards and they can put that into their smelter.”

He said the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund is trying to encourage all levels of government to work with manufacturers to create a computer collection system similar to the blue box system or a deposit refund system.

“That way you could ban throwing them into landfills because that would mean you were actually throwing away money,” he said.

Tim Pomeroy, the environmental coordinator for IBM, said his computer company has been trying to solve this problem for years.

“It’s kind of old hat for us,” he said. “Our customers are asking how to get rid of old computer equipment and governments are now taking a look at the issue of pulling this kind of material out of landfills.”

However, he added, the potential for real harm coming from a junked computer is low.

“Probably the highest risk is monitors, because there is lead in monitors and other things, like copper and precious metals,” he said. “Obviously the concern with lead is it leaking into landfills and contaminating water sources.”

But, since the lead in a monitor is actually encapsulated and not free floating lead “that can just escape and get everywhere,” the monitor would have to be completely crushed to pose any risk, he said.

“Part of what we do in our own manufacturing is try to reduce the amount of hazardous material that we are putting through the process and using in the production of our equipment,” he said.