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Each year, Canadians spend millions on the latest electronic devices: digital cameras, laptops, televisions. In 2007, the average home computer was 2.5 years old, down from 2.7 only a year before. A quarter of computer owners replace their machines every year. And then what? Canadians send three-quarters of old electronics to landfill; that’s a lot of expensive and dangerous garbage.

Used computers, landfill or recycle?
The United Nations says that 20 to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste is generated every year, an amount that is growing fast; Ontario alone produces 70,000 tonnes. Now Ontario proposes a plan for recycling it instead.

Televisions, computer monitors and other high tech electronic devices are particularly unsuitable for landfill, because they are full of heavy metals. Some of these metals are too valuable to throw away. Others, such as lead, cadmium and mercury, are too toxic to put in the ground, where they leach into ground and surface water. One quarter of the glass in CRT monitors, for example, is typically made of the potent neurotoxin, lead.
Over the last year, government-owned Waste Diversion Ontario has been working on a plan for an industry-funded waste diversion program for Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) . A draft of Phase I of the Plan was released for public comment on January 14, 2008. The Plan must be finalized by March 31, 2008.
As directed by the Minister of Environment, Phase 1 will cover desktop and notebook computers, peripherals, monitors, printers/ fax machines and televisions. WDO hopes to recover 48% of Phase I e-waste the first year, increasing to 65% by 2013. Phase II will deal with telephones, stereos, PDAs, copiers, radios, speakers and cameras; Phase III will cover other electronics.

Where will the money come from?
Funding for the Plan is likely to be provided by electronics manufacturers and vendors through a new non-profit corporation called Ontario Electronic Stewardship. The total cost is expected to be at least $48 million per year. They may recover the cost through an extra charge when electronics are sold.

If commodity prices stay high, it is also possible that the metal in old electronics could be worth enough to pay for their collection. Many devices contain copper and precious metals such as gold and silver. In a single year, roughly 1,600 tonnes of copper, 35 tonnes of silver, 1.5 tonnes of palladium, and 3.4 tonnes of gold could be recovered by recycling 100 million cell phones. These metals are valuable since they can be easily re-captured and have already been refined. In fact, electronic scrap metals can be cheaper and more valuable than traditional scrap metals found in other products like cars. As a result, mining giant Xstrata PLC has become the world’s largest consumer of e-scrap; Teck Cominco is also considering refining e-waste.

For more information about properly disposing of electronic equipment, speak with your municipality or contact the manufacturer. Some manufacturer programs:

• Apple’s Electronic Recycling Program
• Canon’s Clean Earth Campaign
• Dell Recycling
• HP Planet Partners
• IBM Asset Recovery
• Lenovo’s Product Recycling Programs
• Lexmark Equipment Collection Program
• Sony Style Notebook Trade-In Program
• TERRE (Toshiba’s Environmental Recovery and Recycling Effort)

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