Harmonizing e-waste management

When most people throw away an old computer they leave it on their front lawn for the municipal waste disposal truck to pick up. And then they carry on with their normal lives.

Ever wonder where all the thousands of defunct PC monitors, television sets, keyboards, VCRs and other electronic waste end up? How many of them are recycled and refurbished, and how many are disposed of? More importantly, how is it affecting the environment? Those are questions that a group of Canadian IT and electronics vendors are looking at very seriously.

They are working closely with provincial governments to draft legislation addressing end-of-life management of electronic items.

Dave Betts, president and chief executive officer, Electronic Product Stewardship Canada (EPSC), said the goal is to achieve “harmonized” policies across the country on e-waste management.

Established in the fall of 2002, EPSC is an 18-member organization of IT and consumer electronics vendors founded by the Information Technology Association of Canada and Electro-Federation Canada.

Betts said waste-management is a provincial responsibility that’s managed through a variety of programs across the country. EPSC member companies, he said, are clamoring for greater uniformity between these different initiatives.

EPSC is actively engaging in consultations with each province to formulate regulations governing the process of e-waste disposal and/or recycling of electronic items.

Betts said his organization wants key aspects of e-waste management legislation across the country to be standardized.

For instance, it’s asking that recycling costs be similar across provinces, whether these costs are imposed on consumers or vendors.

This year, the province of Alberta enforced a regulation imposing a recycling fee for computers, which purchasers pay upfront when they buy a new PC. The money is used to help fund the Alberta Recycling Management Authority.

Following in Alberta’s footsteps the province of Saskatchewan recently announced it would soon implement a new recycling program to manage over 2,000 tons of e-waste the province expects to generate this year. Under the proposal, consumers in Saskatchewan will pay a minimal “environmental levy” when purchasing computer equipment. This will be used to pay for industry-managed e-waste recycling programs.

Standardizing these types of fees is what EPSC is advocating, according to Betts.

“(We want to have) similar costing structures so that people will not go (to another province) because it’s cheaper (to buy there),” Betts said.

He added that while consumers are generally hesitant to pay additional fees on the products, proper communication and explanation as to where the money will be spent would make the fees acceptable to them.

EPSC also wants industry-wide compliance and a level playing field. This means all companies, regardless of size, will be subjected to the same regulations and fees, Betts explained.

“This environmental issue is not something that affects just the large companies, it affects everybody who is in the business, we want to see everybody involved,” said Betts.

EPSC likewise wants regulations to ensure companies are abiding by standards on the appropriate disposal of e-waste. “We want to make sure that (the waste) is not thrown into the rivers or disposed of inappropriately in third-world countries,” Betts said.

EPSC has developed a vendor qualification standard, which outlines the requirements for vendors providing recycling services. According to Betts, Alberta has already adopted this standard for qualifying vendors under the province’s e-waste program. “It is our intention to make this a required standard. As the other provinces come on board with e-waste programs, it is our intention that this, or a variation of it, will become the standard used across the country.”

EPSC recognizes the cost involved in managing an e-waste program. Several IT and electronic companies have recycling programs currently in place. For a fee, some companies would offer to take back old equipment for recycling, Betts explained.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Co. takes a different approach to e-waste management. According to the company’s 2004 HP Global Citizenship Report, a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design and development stage.

Ralph McMillen, vice-president for environmental programs of Mississauga-based HP Canada Ltd, said HP continually innovates designs to achieve an “end-to-end” environmentally designed product, from development to product recycling.

“(For instance) something as simple as using a clip instead of glue will allow the disassembly process to happen more quickly. We want to look at it as an end-to-end supply view not just an individual recycling program,” McMillen said.

Citing a recent GlobeScan survey that indicated 93 percent of Canadians feel that companies can be socially and environmentally responsible and be profitable at the same time, McMillen said the IT industry’s participation in environmental efforts is something emerging.

“If we look at that survey as a consumer preference for buying our products, by building on these other programs we can make them feel comfortable that our products are meeting those (environmental) needs,” McMillen said.

McMillen is a member of EPSC’s board of directors.

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