Schools face old PC disposal dilemma

Refurbishing old computers for re-use is a common alternative in e-waste management, but vendors are wary that it’s not really solving the end-of-life issue, but merely delaying it.

Industry Canada’s Computers for Schools (CFS) program has been a 13-year beneficiary for obsolete computers that would have otherwise been dumped in landfills across the country or exported to “recyclers” in China.

But Mississauga-based HP Canada Co., which previously donated to the program, wants CFS to address the end-of-life of re-used computers when they are disposed of two or three years later.

“Normally about 50 per cent of what [CFS] gets is workable. So half of what they get is really waste so they have to deal with that waste,” said Frances Edmonds, HP Canada’s director for environmental programs.

Since 1993, CFS has donated some 650,000 used computers to schools across Canada. The program gets about 130,000 computer donations every year from government and private sector, according to Pierre Gendron, e-learning director, Industry Canada.

The federal government has allocated a total of $6.7 million to CFS this year for operations and salaries.

Gendron said CFS is currently refurbishing and re-using around 100,000 computers every year. The program was instrumental in achieving a ratio of one computer for every 5 students.

CFS receives donations of old computers from government and private sponsors nationwide. The computers are then refurbished in CFS’s 55 workshops across Canada, to build multi-media systems that are at par with school standards, said Gendron.

“Canada’s Computers for Schools program is the largest of its kind in the world. And it’s having quite an impact on extending the life of these products as the community is looking for solutions,” said Gendron.

But extending the life of the product is not a solution to the growing e-waste problem, as far as HP is concerned. When HP decided to suspend computer donations to CFS, it did not abandon the program completely. HP instead focused on helping CFS dispose of unused HP computers and components by taking them to recyclers at HP’s own expense.

But the cost of clean recycling prevented HP from sustaining that endeavor, said Edmonds. “In the past…we have taken [the computer waste] and paid for it to be recycled. But it’s very expensive to do that and it’s not really a viable solution.”

HP is currently working with CFS to develop an end-of-life plan for donated products and other e-waste generated from the program, said Edmonds. “[CFS is] doing the best they can with the money they have, which is not very much. They’re a charitable organization so they can’t afford to pay the Noranda price of doing it,” Edmonds said.

Brampton, Ont.-based Noranda Recycling is HP’s partner for end-of-life recycling. It uses state-of-the-art smelting and refining technology to safely recover metal content from old electronic and computer equipment. The HP executive disclosed some “other manufacturers” have also stopped donating to CFS because of the end-of-life issue. She however declined to name these manufacturers saying she’s been told “in confidence.”

Currently, when donated computers reach their end-of-life schools send them to provincial waste management systems, according Gendron. Each province has its own e-waste recycling programs, including vendor qualification for recyclers.

“All [recycling] companies that we use are Canadian companies and they all stress that they do not export internationally,” Gendron said.

CFS also worked with the Electronic Products Stewardship Canada to develop a vendor qualification program, which ensures that electronic and computer products are recycled responsibly, said Gendron.

Dell Canada, Microsoft Canada and IBM Canada are some of the IT companies that currently donate old computers to CFS.

Related links:

E-waste recycling options increase

White paper: Electronics end-of-life management

E-waste special main page

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