Wave goodbye to e-waste

Photo: istockphoto.com/CamiloTorres
Get to know the growing number of options for e-waste recycling.

A friend of mine hollowed out a boxy old Mac computer and turned it into an amazing tank for his goldfish. It was an ingenious solution to a problem that most of us face: What to do with broken, obsolete or merely outdated electronics? Electronic waste, or e-waste, is not your average garbage; it has serious environmental consequences when disposed of improperly. 

Out of sight, out of mind, out of hand 

Admit it. It’s hard not to get a thrill out of replacing mobile phones or computers with sexier new versions of the old, especially when costs come down. But this ability to replace our tech toys so easily, compounded by the phenomenon of “planned obsolescence, isn’t sustainable. In fact, in her book Ecoholic, Adria Vasil reports that Canadians dump more than 272 000 tons of e-waste each year, and that consumer electronics contribute 40 percent of all the lead found in landfills. Those cell phones, TVs, VCRs, monitors, computers and other pieces of equipment just aren't ordinary garbage. They contain toxins such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and beryllium that pollute soil and water. Even worse is the toxic trade, which is happening on a global scale and has sprung up to cope with escalating volumes of the stuff. Thousands of tons of e-waste gets shipped abroad, most of it illegally, to countries such as China, Nigeria, India and Pakistan, where it piles up, poisoning the residents and the environment. So before you take your timed-out electronics to the curb, get to know the options for e-waste recycling. 

Batteries: The mercury in batteries is hugely toxic and leaches out in landfills. So remember to bring along your spent batteries on your next trip to Home Depot or Mountain Equipment Co-op which offer convenient battery-collection sites. Computers: The Electronics TakeBack Coalition has started a market campaign to pressure companies into creating and improving takeback programs, including responsible recycling. Its Computer TakeBack report rates the various take-back/recycling programs that are offered by major companies—and exposes the fine print associated with some. You can also share your dead gadget stories with them.

CDs, DVDs, Tapes: Greendisk.com is your destination for that stash of unlovable music and movies. They turn VHS, CDs, DVDs and their cases into new jewel cases or CDs.

Mobile Phones: The Charitable Recycling Program of Canada (CRPC)allows you to donate your mobile phone so they can be refurbished and donated. What distinguishes this recycling program is that it is used by charities, community service groups, schools, associations, etc., as a fundraising tool. These groups can implement the CRPC’s collection and recycling program and receive funds for every recovered mobile phone. The Canadian Association of Food Banks runs Phones for Food and collects cell phones at Petro-Canada, Purolator and other locations.

Consumer electronics: Check with the manufacturer when you buy. Sony of Canada Ltd., for example, has a take-back program for all its products at their end-of-life. You can now drop off your old equipment at one of their 25 non-retail collections sites or bring your handheld Sony electronics to any Sony Style stores. Sony is also working with a professional recycling company to ensure your old electronics are properly recycled and not just thrown into the landfill—a major concern with recycling programs. Read more about how Sony Canada tackles e-waste.

Another person’s treasure In 2005, eBay launched its Rethink Initiative Campaign to encourage people to sell their old electronics, and asking their sellers to spread the word about e-waste. Don’t want the hassle of selling? Rethink also maintains a lengthy list of places to donate or recycle your item.

For donating, Tech Soup has one of the most comprehensive listings of non-profits or school-based recyclers that accept donations of working equipment no older than five years, as well as commercial recyclers accepting old or non-functioning equipment. But perhaps the most lasting impact will come from drawing attention to the issue at the source. Let companies know that they are behind the times for not having a take-back program in place—and take your wallet elsewhere.

With research by Shelagh McNally. 

Do you know about a Canadian recycling program that’s not listed here? Leave us a comment and tell us about it.