I'm staring at my laptop screen deciding what to write, when what I really want to write about lurks millimetres from my fingertips. Computers contain some pretty toxic stuff.
Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) screens like the one in my laptop rely on mercury-vapour bulbs to create light. Although each laptop contains only 0.5 grams of mercury, this adds up to over half a ton of mercury dumped each year.
Environment Canada estimates that Canadians pour 140,000 tons of e-waste yearly straight into landfills. In addition to mercury, which has been linked to neurological defects and nerve damage, computers can contain cadmium, antimony, silver, chromium, zinc and tin. Over 1,356 tonnes of lead, linked to brain and kidney defects, were dumped in 1999 in the form of high-tech gizmos.
Enter the town of Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, birthplace of the Noranda mining company. Its smelters were among the first in the world to focus on recycling the metal components found in electronics. In 2003, Noranda Recycling opened a state-of-the-art recycling plant in Brampton, and last year merged with Falconbridge Ltd.
"The recycling plants were in many cases a natural outgrowth of the mines themselves," says plant manager Sebastien Rosner. He tells me that in Rouyn-Noranda, when the metal deposits began thinning out, "they found themselves with a smelter on top of an empty mine." Although the smelter was designed for copper, the Rouyn-Noranda plant is now one of the world's biggest processors of precious metals from tech trash.
The Brampton plant is a pre-processing facility, where hazardous materials are removed and metals such as copper, aluminum and steel are separated. Falconbridge has taken an innovative approach by focusing on environmental sustainability.
"Few companies have invested to do this in an environmentally sound manner," says Paul Healey, Falconbridge's senior director for recycling. "We don't landfill any of the materials that come to us," he says, "and don't export anything."
After recycling, Falconbridge tracks its products through the marketplace to their final resting place, something Rosner calls a "downstream audit." The company verifies the permits of its customers and checks to see if they're using their products in a sustainable manner.
For example, the mercury-vapour bulbs found in laptops are removed at the Brampton plant and then sent to a mercury bulb recycler. Falconbridge follows this closely to make sure the leftovers from the bulb factory aren't sold to brokers who conveniently make the waste disappear overseas.
"It is our corporate policy" says Rosner of the downstream audit policy, "but Canada has also signed the Basel Convention [On Transboundary Movement Of Hazardous Waste], and we need to uphold that."
That agreement, signed 13 years ago by 166 countries, is designed to stop rich countries from dumping their e-waste in developing countries where environmental laws are notoriously lax.
The Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based watchdog organization, has since uncovered evidence of dumps all over Asia rife with soil containing mercury and lead. The biggest, in Guiya, China, employs over 100,000 workers to dig through junk for bits of copper and gold hidden in wires and circuit boards. The workers melt the plastic wire coverings, creating nasty dioxins and often rendering the local water undrinkable.
Due to the public outcry, Canadian electronics industry reps teamed together to create Electronics Product Stewardship Canada (EPSC), a not-for-profit organization devoted to developing end-of-life plans for electronics. Skeptical of the level of corporate compliance, Alberta has developed a province-wide e-recycling program. Launched in 2004, it currently accepts all sorts of computer junk that would otherwise be dumped in landfills.
Although these initiatives in Alberta and Brampton are admirable, clearly more needs to be done to properly dispose of toxic e-waste. A recent Environment Canada report states that the "e-recycling infrastructure in Canada is far from uniform and has limited coverage."
The Noranda plant in Brampton can take "anything with a plug or a battery" except for "white goods" (stoves and fridges). Call Wendy Boettger at 905-874-8510 for an appointment to make a drop off or pay a little extra for pickup.