Where old computers go to dieĀ 
(Toronto Star, January 1, 2001)

Some are recycled, but many are tossed into landfills, raising environmental issues

The noise is deafening.
The grinding of metal on metal, the whirring of fans, the spinning of belts.

This is the modern slaughterhouse of technology. Computers, cell phones and fax machines come here to die. Everything is shredded and automatically sorted by weight and composition. Video cameras capture the last moments of each machine as it enters the shredders.

“We can shred a photocopier into pieces the size of a guitar pick,” says Sid Morris as he gives me a tour of Electronic Product Recycling Services Inc., the recycling plant where he works.
A recent study by Environmental consulting firm Enviros RIS for Environment Canada predicts that approximately 67,324 tonnes of personal computers, laptops, peripherals and monitors will be “disposed of” in 2005 – tossed into landfills and garage dumps.

But another 91,219 tonnes will be reused or recycled.

Each computer contains a robot’s breakfast of hazardous materials, including cadmium, mercury and flame retardants used in the plastic.

So today’s decisions about electronic waste could have long-lasting effects on the environment.

In Chicago stockyards, they used to say about slaughtered pigs that “we use everything but the squeal.” Morris boasts that EPR’s shredding machine, built last January, recycles 100 per cent of what goes into it.

“By the end of this year (2000) we will probably process in excess of 20,000 that will be kept out of landfills,” he said.

The aluminum, zinc and copper waste that the machine separates into bins is sent to smelters such as Noranda Inc. in Quebec. Once processed, the smelter can sell the purified product back to industry.

But some of the waste products EPR’s shredder pumps out don’t have a second use yet.

There’s not much that can be done with the black soot that falls like snow out of machines. It’s mostly dust and toner from the photocopiers, with a shimmer of fine metal shavings.

The plastic housing used on computers is also still looking for a buyer. The material itself can vary quite a bit in composition, which makes it difficult for it to be efficiently reused. The plastic is generally treated with fire retardants, which release toxins if burned in some recycling processes.

Morris says several firms are studying the composition of the plastic to see if it can be used to produce fuel or sulphuric acid.

Then there’s the item that Morris won’t even put in the shredder: computer monitors.

Desktop displays are the hot potato of electronic waste.

No one wants to deal with the recycling of computer monitors because they contain far less valuable material than they do poison. That makes them a tricky commodity to recycle, especially for profit.

About 6 per cent of your standard desktop computer system is lead by weight. Some of that’s in the solder that holds chips on circuit boards, but the most potentially harmful source of lead comes from the cathode ray tube in the monitor.

According to the Enviros RIS report, each monitor contains anywhere from 0.7 to 2.7 kg of lead. About 15 to 100 grams of that is water soluble, making it the most dangerous type of lead because it can leach into the water and soil if it’s buried in a landfill.

In 1999, Canadians chucked 1,356 tonnes of lead from computers and monitors into landfills, according to the report by Enviros RIS.

Taken in small doses over time, lead can make you lose your mind.

Headaches. Hallucinations. Vomiting.

“We try to stay away from monitors because there is really very little value (in them),” said Adam Freedman, general manager of Hi Tech Recycling Ltd., a computer recycling plant in Downsview.

The people who work at Hi Tech use the same manual techniques they used when Freedman’s father started the business over 20 years ago. It basically involves a screwdriver and a bit of muscle to break the equipment down into its component parts: motherboards, sound cards, wiring and computer shells.

Breaking it down any further – pulling tiny capacitors and resistors out of each board – would be tough and slow by hand.

“The manufacturers never thought of the opposite process of having to take them apart,” said Freedman.

Chris Ober, an engineering professor at Cornell University, has developed a new glue that should make extracting valuable parts out of old computers easier. The glue, called Alpha-Terp, breaks down at just 221 degrees Celsius. That temperature is low enough that computer components won’t be harmed.

New glue may make recycling easier:

It it’s adopted by industry, Alpha-Terp could make the recycling of small computer parts like chips and resistors far more cost-and labour-efficient.

For now, Hi Tech sells whole motherboards and sound cards to smelters who will purify and resell the precious metals within.

By hand, the Downsview recycler processes about 500 machines a day.

Most of their material comes in large quantities from corporations, but consumers are also encouraged to drop off individual machines.

And while they’d rather not accept monitors, it’s sometimes hard to turn them away when they come as a package deal with valuable components.

When a recycler does wind up with a monitor or two, they usually have to pay a smelter like Noranda to properly dispose of it.

During the smelting process, the plastic housing is safely burned off, producing a solid, lead-filled beasts in a landfill.

Concerned about the environmental impact, the state of Massachusetts made dumping cathode ray tubes from monitors and televisions illegal last April.

In the first five months of the program they have recycled 848 tonnes of monitors, televisions and CPUs and the latter weren’t even included in the ban.

“One of the things that we’re trying to do is get toxic substances like lead out of the waste stream,” and Doug Pizzi, press secretary for environmental affairs in Massachusetts.

“Lead is such a potent substance that we felt that it really wasn’t a good idea to have it going into the ground.”

The process is simple. Collection centres were set up to handle waste in 275 to the 351 cities and towns in the state.

“First they screen the items to see if any are repairable. What can’t be reused and repaired, it’s demanufactured and disassembled,” said Pizzi.

But environmental Canada isn’t convinced that the lead in landfills is a problem.

“Frankly, there’s no clear answer to the question at the moment,” said Duncan Bury, head of product policy for Environment Canada’s national office of pollution prevention.

“We don’t have any definitive answers,” he said.

“We need to look at to what degree it is available to the environment. If the lead is embedded in the glass it’s not likely to be an issue, but if it’s in a soluble form then we need to determine to what extent it is an issue.”

Ottawa not sure lead in monitors a poison issue:

So what are we supposed to do with monitors in the interim?

“The idea is to hold on to them,” said Bury. “What we’re encouraging is reuse and the whole idea that we don’t throw this kind of equipment out.”

“Lead is listed in the toxic substances in schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and it is being considered as a candidate for the North American action plan,” he added. “There may be some recommendations which come out of that.”

While the government hasn’t made up its mind whether tougher standards are necessary for electronic waste disposal, science and industry are looking at new approaches to the issue.

A couple of months ago, IBM started a buyback program in the United States for individuals and small businesses who need to dispose of any brand of IT equipment.

Users pay $29.99 (U.S.) for a special shipping label, box up their equipment and call UPS for pickup. IBM makes sure the equipment is disassembled and properly disposed of or refurbished for charity groups.

A spokesperson for the company said they need to see how the program fares in the United States before they will consider starting it in Canada or abroad.

For now, the best place for a consumer to go with their old computer is a place like Technology Learning Alliance in Toronto. The Alliance takes in old computers and uses them to train students and workfare participants how to install software and to some basic maintenance.

Hundreds of skids full of computers and monitors wait in the warehouse for one of the 30 or so students to assess and repair them.

Once they’re in working order, the computers are given to schools, charities or sold to needy families for a modest price of less than $25 (Canadian).

Since the program was started in 1993, about 65,000 computers have come through the Alliance’s doors.

That’s a lot of plastic, aluminum and lead spared from the landfills.