April 21, 2010

Computers should not be buried with the garbage

As published in The Erin Advocate

It's finally time to get rid of my Windows 98 PC. No tears will be shed when I bring it to the Electronics Recycling Day this Saturday in Erin at Centre 2000. Only memories will remain, mostly about hours spent dealing with viruses, unloadable software, malfunctioning peripherals, glacial processing, and of course, dial-up internet.

I am not ready, however, to part with my pre-internet Macintosh. It is resting comfortably in the crawl space, primarily as an antique for the benefit of future generations, an amusing relic of simpler times.

Our family has a reluctance to discard electronics that still work. I still have the black and white Zenith TV I bought with my first summer job paycheque in 1971.

Then there is the Nikon digital camera that cost $999 in 2002. It hit the ground during a hike last week, disabling the auto-focus. Now I have a choice: buy a used one of the same model on e-Bay for $49, buy a new camera that is three times more powerful for $99, or get the broken one repaired for $349.

The E-Waste Recycling Day hosted by Wellington County starts at 9 am and ends promptly at 3 pm this Saturday. There is no charge, but residents are encouraged to make a donation of food or cash to the East Wellington Community Services food bank.

Bring your computer equipment, answering machines, cameras, phones of all types, TVs, stereos, MP3 players and electronic typewriters. Not accepted: tools, games, toys, fluorescent tubes and appliances like microwaves and toasters. For more details, go to www.wellington.ca.

Wellington's first e-waste days were in other towns last October, with 1,200 vehicles delivering 120,000 lbs of waste. The line-ups were too long for some people.

"The response from the public was incredible,” said Cathy Wiebe, Administration Supervisor for Solid Waste Services. “We are extremely pleased that residents took the opportunity to drop off their old electronics to ensure they go for recycling, instead of taking up space in a landfill site.”

Some environmentalists believe that hazardous e-waste metals like lead, cadmium, beryllium and mercury are a serious problem in landfills. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says they are not a threat to human health if handled properly.

The EPA still promotes e-recycling to reduce environmental impacts and energy demands from mining and manufacturing. It says recycling one million laptops saves enough energy to power 3,657 homes for a year. And circuit boards have far higher concentrations of gold and copper than ore mined from the earth.

Recently I took a printer to the transfer station. The ink cartridges were saved as Household Hazardous Waste (HHW), but the rest went into the regular garbage. The Belwood Waste Facility is set up to handle HHW and re-usable items, but not electronics as a separate waste stream. Addition of that service would be a logical improvement over the once-a-year event.

Staples has just expanded its recycling services. Their stores have offered bins for discarded ink and toner, cell phones, pagers and chargers and batteries, and they now accept TVs, computers and many other products.

Locally, alkaline batteries up to Size D can be dropped off at any library branch. For more options, go to www.dowhatyoucan.ca. Enter your waste item and postal code, and get a list of destinations.

An estimated 100 million cell phones are discarded every year in the US, along with 32 million computers. Millions of tonnes of e-waste are shipped to impoverished areas of China, in violation of a UN treaty. There it is torn apart and melted under appalling working conditions to extract reusable plastics and metals, resulting in severe environmental damage.

The County has contracted Global Electric Electronic Processing (GEEP) to recycle material from its seven e-waste event days, one in each municipality this year. GEEP has locations across Canada and abroad, with ten facilities and 350 employees, diverting 200,000 tonnes of e-waste from landfill annually. Based in Barrie, they boast the "largest, most comprehensive state-of-the-art processing facility for e-waste…globally."

They re-use what they can, including purging and re-imaging hard drives ("If there's any value left in it, we'll find a user for it!"), and the rest is crushed and sorted into salable commodities. In February, GEEP was designated as a Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher, allowing them to install Windows XP on recycled computers.

So my PC may live again, but it will have to live somewhere else.