Skip to main content

Eli Freedman has a good view of where old computers are sent to die.

He helps operate one of Canada's largest recyclers of used computer equipment, trying to salvage the scrap metals they contain and prevent their hazardous components from polluting the environment.

Every work day, about 300 to 500 computers get ripped apart at his Toronto company to recover their metals, such as copper, aluminum and silver, worth from $1.50 to $2.50 per junked machine.

"Basically, we strip them," said Mr. Freedman, vice-president of Hi-Tech Recycling (Canada) Ltd. "It's intense, manual labour."

But only about half of the old computers, disk drives, printers and other former high-technology equipment used in Canada is being recycled or reused. The rest are dumped into landfills or burned, where they pose a big potential health threat because they contain an array of hazardous materials, such as lead.

There are fears the disposal problem could grow dramatically as the millions of computers sold in the 1990s begin to get junked.

The federal government is about to publicly release three new reports warning that a big effort has to be made to increase the recycling of old computers, monitors, and even telephones and cell phones, because they contain potentially toxic material.

Dangerous substances are found in information-technology equipment, including mercury, lead, cadmium, beryllium, hexavalent chromium, brominated flame retardants, PCBs and polyvinyl chloride.

When dumped into landfills, the toxic compounds can leach out and pollute groundwater. When computers are burned, the dangerous substances are released into the atmosphere and contaminate the incinerator ash. Burning plastics and flame retardants also lead to the production of carcinogenic dioxins and furans.

A summary of the three reports was issued yesterday by the Recycling Council of Ontario.

The federal government is planning to release them later this month or in November, pending their translation into French. However, Duncan Bury, an official at Environment Canada's office of pollution prevention, said the summary was largely accurate.

One of the reports offered the government six policy options for dealing with computer waste. Under review are programs ranging from voluntary industry efforts to promote recycling to forcing the computer companies to have full responsibility for taking back old machines from consumers.

Banning computers from landfills and giving industry responsibility for old equipment has been adopted by the European Union, but no jurisdiction in Canada has taken this step.

Mr. Bury said Manitoba is the closest to adopting the European approach and has just issued draft regulations on household hazardous waste that would require computer manufacturers to take back their machines for reuse or recycling.

One of the reports indicates that a full system of computer recycling, paid for by manufacturers, would cost at least $24-million annually in Canada. A second report speculates that computer recycling could become more profitable than automobile recycling.

Currently, there are more than 10 million computers in Canadian businesses, homes and educational institutions, with typical lifespans of three to five years before they are replaced.

Junked high-technology equipment amounts to 1 per cent to 2 per cent of the total solid waste stream from residential areas.

Toxic releases from computers and other information-technology equipment threaten to reverse much of the progress that has been made in getting dangerous material out of garbage.

Mercury and lead, for instance, have been removed from most of their once common uses, but both metals are found in computer equipment. One of the biggest hazards is computer monitors, which typically contain 0.7 to 2.7 kilograms of lead.

The dangerous material in high-technology equipment isn't a health hazard to users of the machines. But an environmental threat arises because of the huge amount of harmful material that computers could release into the environment. For instance, an estimated 15 per cent of all the lead found in municipal waste is believed to be coming from junked computer monitors.

And even though only 0.002 per cent of the weight of the average personal computer is mercury, that could add up to 500 kg annually.