Every nanosecond, someone in this country decides to junk an old computer for some newfangled hunk of microchips and plastic. The question is, how much e-waste do we actually have in T.O.? The federal government estimates that some 55 million PCs will have found their way into dumps by 2005 -- and recycling the digital creatures is barely an afterthought.
That's not exactly what city officials are saying. Coordinator of waste diversion Carolyn McSkimming suggests that few people actually throw their old machines in the garbage, instead keeping them in the closet or recycling them. "The computers we're picking up at the curbside are few and far between," she says. "People have a hard time getting rid of something that costs so much."
That's also the view of Arnold Blumenthal, owner of Concord-based Arlen Scrap Metal, one of two companies contracted by the city to collect old computers left at transfer stations. The firms break up the component parts -- the metal, the circuit boards, the plastic -- and ship them off to Silicon Valley or into other recycling arenas. Most of the stuff, he insists, "is not going into landfill.'
But even the information technology industry claims that the recycling rate is only 15 per cent, while the Toronto Environmental Alliance's Gord Perks estimates the number is closer to 2 or 3 per cent. "The problem is that computers are expensive to handle because so much is hazardous," he says.
ReBoot, a non-profit Toronto company involved in refurbishing computers and donating them to charities, gets about 5,000 machines a year but is only able to redistribute about half of those. Even schools don't take many of these, as McSkimming admits. "They don't want the used stuff unless it's Pentium 4 or better," she says.
Federally, there are no laws yet against tossing computers into the trash. Ontario has yet to follow Alberta's and Manitoba's lead in requiring manufacturers to take responsibility for computer waste. Environmentalists say those who make the product should be paying the costs of disposal as well as participating in mandatory take-back programs, as the European Union has required.
Here, however, the Information Technology Association of Canada, a group representing some 1,300 computer and telecom companies, is recommending electronics storage areas at existing waste depots to facilitate recycling. Electronics Product Stewardship Canada vice-president Jay Illingworth says, "We'd like a program that's effective for the population and for our companies."
The rapid pace of technological change, meanwhile, is putting thousands more computers into the waste stream every year, leaching lead, cadmium and mercury into the soil and groundwater. But it's countries like China, Pakistan and India that are feeling the fallout most. An estimated 50 to 80 per cent of all e-waste currently sent to recyclers in Canada ends up in containers bound for places like China, where open burning, acid baths and dumping are wreaking eco-havoc. An October 2002 report prepared by the Basel Action Network (BAN) titled Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing Of Asia named Canadian companies among the worst e-waste outlaws on the globe.
The report estimates that more than 20,000 tonnes of digital trash went from Canada to Asia in 2002 alone -- even though China has banned the import of e-waste and Canada is a signatory to international treaties banning the export of such waste. Among the materials discovered by BAN at strip sweatshops in Asia were computers used by, among others, the Department of National Defence and Air Canada.
Until recently, the Canadian government held that computers themselves aren't hazardous as long as they're shipped as a whole, but it has since advised companies not to export old computers to China or other developing countries.
Environment Canada spokesperson Suzanne Leppinen says the feds are also "re-examining" how Canada defines electronic scrap. "We haven't gotten to the point of making any decisions," she says. All of which is turning the screws a little tighter for the city to come up with a plan.