Dead computer? Make sure it gets a decent burial

In old Tarzan movies, you never saw dead elephant carcasses scattered across the African landscape. That’s because every dying pachyderm knew the way to the secret Elephants’ Graveyard.

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It’s where they all eventually had to go – that vast cemetery filled with the thousands of elephant carcasses and ivory tusks amassed from countless generations. The Elephants’ Graveyard was a place to which the grey titans were instinctively drawn, but none beyond the jungle king and the elephants themselves knew its precise whereabouts.

As Environmental Week in Canada approaches, beginning on June 5, businesses small and large should pause to think about Tarzan’s fictional elephant necropolis. Where, they might ask, is the resting place for my company’s old PCs, servers, printers, mainframes and other computing hardware?

Most businesses may not be aware that the largest computing graveyard in the world is in Asia, specifically China. Between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of electronic waste (depending on the country that produces it) ends up somewhere in Asia, says Cindy Thomas, plant manager at Noranda Inc.’s e-waste recycling facility in Brampton. Ont.

The disposal of computer equipment and other electronics, “usually follows a path of least resistance,” she says, “where the cheapest alternative wins.” And countries like China are the cheapest place to trash old computers.

The equipment is exported there by “recycling” brokers and sent to massive facilities in various Asian countries where it is literally torn apart by hand, Ms. Thomas explains. According to the U.S.-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), a group dedicated to the cause of environmentally friendly electronics recycling, it’s 10 times cheaper to send old electronics to places like China than to more cleanly process this e-waste. For the cost of about five cents per pound, a Canadian business can rid itself of its old computing gear by shipping it off for offshore processing.

But these Asian operations are also a hazardous business. While some parts can be salvaged and reused, much of this old computing hardware contains all sorts of dangerous-to-handle material – things like florescent tubes filled with mercury vapour, batteries that contains lead and cadmium, carcinogenic toners and inks from printers, and other hazardous compounds such as beryllium, lead and brominates. These chemicals and substances typically end up leaching into the landscape and water supplies of regions that don’t dispose of it properly.

Consider the magnitude of this computing body count. The IT and Telecommunications Waste in Canada report estimates that in Canada alone, 91,217 metric tonnes of PCs, servers, laptops, monitors, scanners, printers, fax machines, cellphones and telephone handsets will be tossed out annually by 2010, making it the fastest growing segment of municipal solid waste material.

E-recycling operations like the 82,000 sq. ft. Noranda facility in Brampton are an attempt to established a new burial ground for e-waste. Opened in 2003, the Noranda plant includes among its customers computer-maker Hewlett Packard Canada, as well as 70 others – mostly hardware manufacturers, governments and large companies.

“Right now we’re processing approximately 600,000 pounds a month,” Ms. Thomas says.

Rather than dumping e-waste overseas, Noranda’s customers are those willing to foot the bill to provide a safe end of life for computers. At the Brampton plant, the first stage of any computer’s ultimate demise is to first remove those components considered hazardous and recycle these safely. What remains is fed through shredders and mechanical processors that chop it up and spit out 5-centimetre pieces of metal and other material, all of which is screened and separated. Fine material, primarily small pieces of copper, is captured through the screening process, while the rest continues along a conveyer path to a magnetic separator that pulls out steel, which is recycled for rebar in the construction industry. Aluminum is then separated out by a rotating magnet that applies a charge the material and causes it to be repelled into a separate sorting bin. What remains after is a mix of copper and plastic-blended pieces that are used as a source of energy to fuel Noranda’s smelters. Even the dust contained within the old computing gear is collected, since it contains enough metal to be extracted and made useful, Ms. Thomas says.

Business customers can watch the process. Ms. Thomas says financial institutions often demand assurance that confidential information that might still exist in old equipment doesn’t escape the process. In that case, they might actually require that a representative witness the complete and utter destruction of trashed hard drives and other storage media.

In a business world governed by economics, Noranda’s 45-cent-per-pound disposal cost has trouble competing with more environmentally harmful alternatives. But times may be changing.

Frances Edmonds, the director of environmental programs for HP Canada, reports that the Ontario government, through its Waste Diversion Ontario agency, has been commissioned to examine an appropriate end-of-life fate for computers and other electronic equipment. A study in progress is examining how electronics equipment arrives for sale in the province, how it gets sold, what types and what quantity of electronic waste is being retained by businesses and people in general, and how a provincial electronics disposal system might be funded.

Ms. Edmonds says she believes government would like to see the fees for responsible electronics disposal built into the cost of the product, likely as something to be phased in over time. She expects it may take up to a year for the provincial agency to come up with a plan and, after that, it’s reasonable to expect legislation that will require a cleaner and safer end for computing and other electronic gear than simply shipping it away to become someone else’s problem.

She adds that Alberta is currently the only province in Canada with a program for end-of-life electronic equipment disposal. The law in that province imposes an advanced recovery fee to a range of electronic equipment sold – things like televisions, computer monitors, laptops, PCs and printers.

Alberta’s approach is a lesson for us all. Given that millions of computers in the world are nearing the end of their useful lives and the fact that this equipment is potentially lethal, it wise to ensure there’s a timely and environmentally friendly means of disposing of it.

In those old Tarzan movies, even dying elephants understood the necessity of reaching a safe final resting place. Businesses should do likewise with computer equipment that’s long past its prime.

This article appeared in The Globe and Mail on June 9, 2005.

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