Solid Waste & Recycling


Cover Story: Computer Crash

The flood of used and discarded information technology and telecommunication equipment (so-called "IT waste") is a growing problem, and alternative strategies and funding models to safely collect, ref...

The flood of used and discarded information technology and telecommunication equipment (so-called “IT waste”) is a growing problem, and alternative strategies and funding models to safely collect, refurbish or recycle the equipment (and divert the toxic metals they contain from landfill) are highly controversial. Most of the debate centres on whether costs should be shared between industry and municipalities in a government-run system, or internalized by industry in a return-to-retail or return-to-depot scheme (or other combinations).

The problem — and the opportunity — is huge. Between 1992 and 2000 Canadians disposed of enough personal computers and monitors to fill approximately 1,000 Olympic size swimming pools, but only about 10 per cent was recycled or refurbished for reuse.

In 1999, the estimated quantity for disposal of this equipment was about 37,000 tonnes. The amount of computers generated and disposed is expected to almost double over five years, to an estimated 72,000 tonnes in 2005.

With Ontario’s recently passed waste diversion legislation, the Waste Diversion Act, it’s only a matter of time before computer waste becomes a designated waste. (See Editorial, page 4 and Final Analysis, page 62.) In addition, provinces such as Manitoba and Nova Scotia are looking at extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes to manage this special waste stream.

IT equipment waste presents a number of processing challenges, including hazardous materials such as lead, cadmium, mercury, brominated flame retardants, and polyvinyl chlorides. Also, precious metals such as gold and copper need to be recovered properly in order to optimize their values.

According to a report prepared by the Canadian Environment Industry Association (CEIA) and Contemporary Information Analysis for Environment Canada, an estimated five per cent of a computer’s original sale value can be regained through the sale of secondary materials — which means computer recycling can be more profitable than automobile recycling. Also, due to the decreased cost of extraction, the precious metals in computers are approximately three times more valuable than metal ore.

“The potential is very large — this is a big business opportunity,” says Colin Isaacs, co-author of the report and chair of CEIA.

Keep an eye on ITAC

With the current lack of comprehensive provincial systems, the early bird may once again get the worm. A recently proposed national IT equipment recycling strategy that may start as soon as 2003 would completely alter the way Canadians dispose of computers.

Estimates indicate that by 2007 the program could divert 2,565,277 units of IT equipment (just under 50 per cent of total units available) representing 21,939 tonnes of waste. But critics of this proposed program say that it’s an attempt to get municipalities to cover costs that should instead be covered by EPR mechanisms.

The report, conducted by EnvirosRIS for the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), “The Industry Roadmap — Overview of a National Action Plan for Management of End of Life IT and Telecom Equipment in Canada,” was released in March 2002.

Together with its partner organizations, ITAC represents 1,300 companies in the computing and telecommunications hardware, software, services, and electronic content sectors. This network of companies accounts for more than 70 per cent of the 542,000 jobs, $132.6-billion in revenue, $5.3-billion in R&D expenditure and $44-billion in exports.

ITAC’s proposed program will cost about $14-million, plus $800,000 for start-up. The program would use a “shared responsibility” model, with municipalities and consumers taking operational and financial responsibility for collection of IT and telecom equipment. The scheme would involve municipalities bringing the equipment to consolidation centres; industry would pay for the cost of transportation from consolidation centres and processing.

The program, to be rolled out over a five-year period, would be financed through a front-end fee applied to IT equipment sold through retail outlets. According to David Betts, vice president of programs at ITAC, the front-end fee would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $25 for a typical computer.


Critics of the proposed strategy say it overlooks important issues. For example, the collection infrastructure and municipal cost requirements are vague.

The study itself concedes “there are very few locations in Canada at present where the existing processing capacity will meet the needs of the National Program…A new collection infrastructure will therefore be needed…”

Mr. Betts says he hopes that municipalities would take advantage of existing depots or landfill locations willing to separate computer waste from the rest of waste, or fund the retrofitting of facilities.

Critics also say that data is absent about the full costs of the program to municipalities.

“From a collection standpoint, the program lacks flexibility,” says Clarissa Morawski, principal of CM Consulting (and a contributing editor to this magazine). “It doesn’t recognize regional differences, relying solely on the municipal infrastructure while excluding private sector involvement (i.e., return-to-retail and/or return to private depot).”

Provincial programs

Some argue that provincial governments (not just industry or municipalities) could mandate computer and telecom equipment recycling. At 63 per cent of households, Albertans have a high average for PC ownership compared to other provinces. In February 2001, Alberta became the first province to launch an initiative to recycle obsolete computers (and fluorescent lamps), aiming to recycle 75 per cent of IC&I computer waste by 2005. A new electronics waste recycling facility recently opened its doors in Rimbey, Alberta. (See Industry News, page 50.)

Meanwhile Nova Scotia has its own vision for a computer-recycling program. In response to the ITAC report, Bob Kenney, solid waste-resource coordinator with Nova Scotia’s Department of Environment and Labour, says the province’s current infrastructure would not suffice for the proposed national program; few municipal drop-off depots exist and some municipalities do not have separate bulky-waste collection.

But Mr. Kenny points out that the province already has an Enviro-Depot system (for beverage containers) in place that may be better suited for such computer recycling. Over 87 per cent of Nova Scotians live within 20 km of one. He also states that due to the nature of IT equipment, collection systems would have to be improved.

Mr. Kenny points to Nova Scotia’s paint stewardship program, which is designed to ensure brand owners pay the fee, as a good example of EPR.

Similarly, in Manitoba, industry brand owners take responsibility for waste, and Manitoba’s Guideline, the “Draft Stewardship Criteria for HHW,” will apply to the sale of all consumer electrical and electronic equipment.

Says Laurie Streich, director of the pollution prevention branch of Manitoba Conservation, “The definition of ‘shared responsibility’ in the ITAC plan is very different from the model in Manitoba.”

The national proposal also assumes that municipal systems are established to handle household hazardous waste. But currently, the provincial government, not municipalities, almost entirely funds HHW collection in Manitoba. With regard to collection, Manitoba has identified the need for a permanent collection and disposal system for HHW. The province suggests that return-to-retail be considered for the return of electronics waste.

British Columbia also prefers the EPR approach. Karen Asp, director of policy and communication with the Recycling Council of British Columbia, is skeptical of the shared responsibility model.

“In B.C. we support a principle of full industry responsibility,” says Ms. Asp. “We already have an established private-sector depot system and we’d rather use a model similar to our paint waste stewardship program.”

B.C. has been a leading proponent of product stewardship thro
ugh the
implementation of industry-operated recovery programs for products such as tires, lead acid and Ni-Cad batteries, used oil, paint, and beverage containers.

Recently, the Greater Vancouver Regional District Solid Waste Committee passed motions to support the Federation of Canadian Municipalities concerns regarding municipal responsibility for collection and to request that the provincial government develop an industry financed and industry managed program for IT waste.

In Ontario, certain municipalities have already taken matters into their own hands. The City of Barrie offers a service to bring old computers and electronics to the household hazardous depots. (See “Electronics Recycling: The Responsible Alternative” in the April/May 2002 edition.)

Surfing for a solution

As Canada looks to Europe and the U.S. for viable, safe models of various government-run and industry-run programs (see sidebar), it’s interesting to discuss the groundbreaking ideas. Let’s hope that we get it right.

“I have some issues with the proposed ITAC national strategy,” says Mr. Isaacs. “Its primary purpose is to raise money with recycling while it doesn’t necessarily take into account environmental considerations, such as CRT waste.”

A system that would be economically competitive as well as environmentally aware, backed by legislation and enforced targets with the support of an education campaign to foster cooperation, seems like the best bet. In any case, it’s quite clear that further public consultation is needed — to ensure a level playing field and fair cost allocations.

In the meantime Canadian consumers can check with equipment brand owners for their product take-back policies and programs, donate old computers to charitable organizations (such as Computers for Schools), find out about refurbishing organizations, or ask local computer stores and municipalities about disposal and recycling options in the area.

For more information, a directory of computer processing companies in Canada, and to read recent reports on computer waste management, see the “posted documents” section at

Connie Vitello is editor of this magazine.

How other countries compute the challenge

A recent report confirms that industry-run electronics programs backed by strong legislative support are not only less expensive for taxpayers but also achieve higher recovery rates. Electronics Recycling: What to Expect from Global Mandates, a report from U.S.-based Raymond Communications, concludes that industry-run programs reach higher recovery rates than government-financed systems.

The report compares programs in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and Denmark and says that while most programs for both consumer and commercially generated equipment include visible fees, the government-run programs recovered less versus systems in which the money is provided directly from manufacturers to collection organizations.

The Netherlands recovers the most electronics waste — approximately 60 per cent overall — while Switzerland recovers about 50 per cent. Norway recovers about 50 per cent with the help of three collection organizations versus just 30 per cent in Denmark’s government-run program.

The European Union is poised to enact two new waste electronics directives that will require industry-financed collection systems for computers and other electronic wastes. One directive would restrict the use of certain hazardous substances as well as require the redesign of chipboards and other equipment. Another would require manufacturers to take responsibility for waste by collecting and recycling old computers.

Pilot studies in the U.S. also indicate that collection systems run with retailers are the least expensive. However, according to Michele Raymond, publisher of the report, retailers are the least cooperative and manufacturers do not want to offend the retailers.

If U.S. industry does not come up with a viable system soon, a patchwork of government-run solutions under the national voluntary agreement (NEPSI) is in the process of being resolved anyway. But there have been big bumps on the road to regulation.

IT waste management raises labour exploitation and toxic exposure issues. When dismantling this type of equipment with hazardous components, it is imperative that proper protective gear is worn and safety protocols are in place.

Controversy surrounds recent NEPSI mandates and the U.S. EPA’s proposed cathode ray tube (CRT) rule for hazardous electronics waste. Groups such as The Computer TakeBack Campaign — a national network of more than a dozen organizations promoting producer responsibility for computers and computer electronics — claims that the rule falls short of stated goals and will likely increase waste export and “dirty recycling and dumping of pollutants in Asian countries.”

Meanwhile, individual states are discussing a move to require take-back of electronics, or at least place fees on cathode ray tubes (CRTs) to finance expensive recycling systems. Currently, California, Massachussetts and New York are moving toward CRT recycling bills.

However, California Governor Gray Davis recently returned the bill without his signature. He applauds the bill’s effort to address dangerous cargo going to underdeveloped nations where workers are exposed to hazardous materials, but in a letter to the California State Senate, he writes, “I believe that building a state bureaucracy to address this problem is not the best solution for managing electronic waste. We should compel industry to solve this problem.”

“Industry already has initiated several successful incentive programs that create a partnership between consumer and the manufacturer,” he writes. He believes a better model would “foster the concept of an environmentally sustainable electronic and technology industry and provides incentives to design products that are less toxic and more recyclable.”

A 2000 report on IT and telecommunication waste by EnvirosRIS for Environment Canada reveals that several Canadian companies were sending a considerable amount of equipment to China until the market was closed to overseas outlets on April 1, 2000.

Management Tool Material Flow Assumptions

Outlet for Obsolete 1995-1999 2000-2005
IT Equipment
Reuse 40% 40%
Storage 10% 10%
Recycling 10% 15%
Disposal 40% 35%
100% 100%

Disposal of IT and telecom equipment waste from 1999-2005 based on estimates from Environment Canada’s waste flow tool calculations. Source: Information technology (IT) and Telecommunication (Telecom) Waste in Canada, Environment Canada.

Source: Electronics Industry Environmental Roadmap, Microelectronics Computer Technology Corporation.

Composition of Personal Computer and Monitor

Component % Composition
Silica/glass 25%
Ferrous metal 20%
Plastics 23%
Aluminum 14%
Copper 7%
Lead 6%
Zinc 2%
Various presious metals* 3%
Total 100%

*Precious metals include nickel, manganese, coblat, barium, tin, silver, antimony, chromium, cadmiun, selenium, mercury, gold and arsenic.

Industry and consumers “go Dutch”

The Nederland-ICT (information technology equipment) federation was initiated to manage computers, printers and telecommunication equipment on June 13, 2001 —
well in advance of the proposed European Union directives. The federation, which is a co-operative of five industry associations, has revenues of more than 60 billion guilders (or CDN$42-billion).

Manufacturers and importers of this equipment bear the costs of the ICT equipment they must take back in an environmentally friendly way. Payment is made (in arrears) after the equipment recovered has been processed. For example, a printer (5 kg) costs about Euro 2.75 (or CDN$4.25) to dispose of and process, and a complete PC (30 kg) would cost approximately Euro 16 (or CDN$25).

Unlike the country’s system for white and brown goods, ICT equipment does not have a visible fee, though ICT participants are free to pass on their take-back costs to customers one way or another.

Consumers may dispose of their used ICT equipment as follows. When purchasing a new PC they can bring the old one to the retailer or supplier selling the new product and the retailer must accept the PC free of charge from the consumer; or, they can provide the old PC to the municipality. About 65 regional sorting stations are located across the country.

A major advantage to municipalities is that ICT equipment that is “orphaned” (the original manufacturer/importer is no longer in business) and “free rider” products (from companies that haven’t given notification to the environment minister) can still be collected and removed free of charge.

Approved processing plants invoice the manufacturers/importers at regular intervals for transporting and processing of their branded products taken back, plus an additional charge for orphaned or free rider products. Unlike Canada, in the Netherlands, Internet sales are quite low so there’s not as much cost involved to process imported systems.

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