Will British Columbia really start recycling old computers?
A new e-waste recycling program being launched by the B.C. Government may not constitute recycling.
In this day and age of environmental awareness and reconstitution of reusable materials, it seems odd that immolation could be considered a form of recycling. To put it ever so bluntly; is incineration akin to recycling?
What once was hot, is now enkinkled in toxic flame!
Apparently it is according to the Government of British Columbia, Canada. Starting August 1st, a program being launched by the Electronics Stewardship Association of B.C. (an industry led coalition of 16 tech giants such as Apple and Sony) will have a number of Encorp Pacific Canada's Return-It bottle depots accepting four categories of consumer electronics waste; TV sets, computers, printers and monitors. Funding for the new project will be made possible by a fee of $5 to $15 dollars levied upon the purchase of new electronics goods (an environmental fee akin to the purchase of hazardous chemicals to help fund their disposal services). Supposedly, many of the public would believe that when presented with the term recycling, that said materials would be recycled.
But, and I emphasize the word 'but', simply having these old consumer electronics materials carted off to an smelter in trail is ever so head scratching. In fact, a number of individuals and organizations already involved in the safe and efficient recycling of computers and electronics say that irresponsible, misguided and deceptive. One such group for the Seattle, Washington environmental group Basel Action Network says B.C.’s plan for electronics is misguided, and is virtually the equivalent to doing nothing at all. Sarah Westervelt, e-waste project director for the Basel group, had said that instead of polluting lands fills with toxic waste, they'll be polluting the air instead by burning these old electronics.
As many may already know, electronic devices (computers, TV's, printers, cell phones, batteries, VCR's, DVD players, hair dryers, etc.) contain large amounts of toxic elements such as lead and mercury (a large CRT television or monitor can contain several pounds worth). Furthermore, there are other materials from older electronics that pose even greater harm to humans and the environment. PCB's, dioxins, and some types of plastics can be of incredibly harmful when burned. Case in point, types of urethane base plastics. These plastics are widely used and very long lasting. But when burned, can create cyanide as a byproduct.
“If the only two choices were to put it in a landfill or put it in a smelter...that’s a toss up.” Sarah Westervelt had added, “That’s why programs need to be set up that are both convenient and also have very high standards for recycling and encourage reuse and refurbishment in a responsible way.” She also feels that because of the simple convenience of the supposed recycling program, people will simply take any and all of there old electronics to one of these recycling depots, regardless of wither they work or not. California has taken an almost palled approach to B.C.'s e-waste program when these materials are simply incinerated in a smelter or buried in a landfill. Furthermore, there is a lot of natural gas uses to fuel smelters; an energy resource that could obviously be put to better use.
When asked to address the issue, B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner was defensive, simply saying that something needs to be done.
“The majority of used electronics today are ending up in our landfills,” Penner said. “Traditional television sets contain up to five to eight pounds of lead and mercury per unit. As that lead and mercury breaks down and gets into our landfills, it seeps into the water table and as you know, lead and mercury are highly toxic to the natural environment and poses a threat to drinking water for those communities that draw their water from an aquifer.” Lead, mercury and copper will be reclaimed through the smelting process, except fort the portion that escapes into the atmosphere and into our air.
Perhaps Penner isn't aware of how during the 1970's, there was a issue regarding high levels of lead being found in children. Turns out that it was the lead being added to gasoline (an anti-ping, anti-pre-ignition agent) that was responsible. The lead laden exhaust would drift up into the clouds, be absorbed by the moisture within, fall to the earth as leaded rain, hydrate the grass in the fields, the cows would eat the leaded grass, and produce milk with noticeable quantities of lead within. We still use the term 'Leaded Gas', but lead is no longer used for this reason.
Although Penner Minister does acknowledge there might be a market for used electronics, those end-of-life products will be sent to a smelter in Trail “rather than dumping the TVs in landfills or sending them off to China to have children tear them apart with a hammer under unsafe conditions.”
But there's always an alternative, as indicated by Richmond’s Giles Slade, author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. He said that B.C.'s new recycling program is nothing more than “greenwashing,” a cosmetic solution that convinces people they are doing something.
“I think the manufacturers acting by themselves to take care of this problem is really dangerous basically because they’re trying to pre-empt (any environmental charges being drawn up against them)...and the fact that they’ve chosen to do it in what seems to be a really irresponsible way, a smelter, seems to indicate that if there’s no restriction on them, they’ll go the cheapest and most convenient route." Slade noted, “So I don’t know who’s going to benefit from this, except for the electronics industry which will have a mechanism in place to make the claim that they’re dealing with e-waste.” He further noted that by 2011, an estimated 20 million analog television sets in Canada will become obsolete when Canadian broadcasting turns completely digital, “so there’s going to be an awful lot of e-waste.”
Bojan Paduh, of the Electronics Recycling Association of Alberta, said that B.C.’s new program will effectively kill the reuse and refurbishing of old consumer electronics, especially that of computers.
“What our organization’s been trying to do in B.C. is convince Encorp...to allow companies like us to have access to this equipment to remove working parts, components, working monitors, working laptops and servers and they’ve said no. If indeed this program is about recycling then this should be not even a question.”
“(This electronics recycling program) is not really environmental protection because smelting this equipment is actually even more hazardous for our environment than burying it in landfills,” Paduh said.
Since this recycling program is being run by industry, he said it’s “against their best interest to allow this equipment to go into other people’s hands when their goal is to sell it and to sell as much of it as they can.”
Edward Wu, owner of Surrey-based Electronics-recycling.com, has been in the recycling business for some 15 years and processes 10,000 tonnes of electronics annually. Surprisingly, some 90 per cent of the equipment he collects still works, he said. He is obviously concerned that this new e-waste recycling program will have an impact upon his business when Encorp is handed their electronics recycling monopoly.
“It’s a very beautifully designed plot. It’s a money game. All the big companies...they support this program. The reason: they don’t want anything reused...If somebody doesn’t need this, they don’t even want (them) to sell (it) second hand. They want to limit choice, because then they can sell more new stuff...”
A colleague in the business of computer and electronics recycling, Ali Hussain (founded the Vancouver Computer Literacy Society, a non-profit organization that works with the public and private sector to deal with surplus and obsolete electronics), of Rayz Computer Recycling on Annacis Island, added that the new program will take the wind out of businesses like his, which tests monitors and computer towers by the hundreds for refurbishment and reuse for places such as schools, charitable organizations and the like.
“We’d like to be able to go through the stuff,” he said in reference to Encorp’s collections.
His company ships used electronics to clients in Colombia, Tanzania, Uganda, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan.
“Canada is a very rich country and we are disposing on a daily basis some very, very high end equipment. Some people in these other countries would love to have our garbage. That’s how it is. One man’s treasure is another man’s junk.”
When Encorp was asked about the allowance for some individuals and or businesses to sift through some of the collected e-waste for reuse or refurbishing, Malcolm Harvey, communications consultant with Encorp Pacific, disputed Wu's claim that some 90% of e-waste is still functional, suggesting that the figure is closer to 5% still in working order.
Regardless of who says what, I think that most all can agree that the burning of this e-waste is thoroughly irresponsible. There are a number of far more environmentally sound methods of e-waste disposal. Refurbishing old electronics and computers for resale and reuse seems the most obvious of course. Another method involves grinding the old electronics into fine particles. Those particles are then mixed with small plastic beads of different sizes. The whole mixture in then dumped into a tank, water is added, and the constituents vibrated. Different materials will settle out at different layers, easily reclaimed for recycling.