There's a dark drawer in my house full of guilty secrets: Dead batteries, trashed motherboards, broken tape recorders... the list goes on. But I can't bring myself to throw this stuff out since it would cause serious eco-damage
But if you're like me, accumulating dead cell phones and other techy items at home, you're actually in the minority. The most toxic type of trash — tech trash — is also the fastest growing type in North America. According to Environment Canada, 98 per cent of Canadian gadgetry ends up in landfill or incinerators.
Did You Know?
Less than 5% of cellular phones are recycled. That means 14 million cell phones may be thrown out every year in Canada! Alright, so it's trash, you're thinking, just like any other kind, right?
Kinda but there's more to it than just being trash. First, tech trash is incredibly toxic with chemicals including lead, mercury, selenium, cadmium, and arsenic. Certain compounds of these elements cause direct damage to the human body, whether through contaminated groundwater from leaching dumps or in air-borne smog from incinerators.
Second, every gadget tossed usually requires another gadget to be made. That means more energy used, more greenhouse gas emissions and more depleted natural resources. To some politicians, that rings sweetly of new jobs and economic growth.
Did You Know?
Canadians got rid of an estimated 34,000 tons of information technology waste in 1999 and that value more than doubled in 2005! But with an eye on sustainability, other leaders — including industry executives — are realizing that the sooner they start recycling, the more money they'll make in the long run. Recycling brings the old saying back to life: one person's trash is another's treasure.
Hewlett-Packard recently announced that it had recycled its billionth pound of electronics worldwide. In Canada, 21 companies have come together to create the not-for-profit Electronics Product Stewardship Canada (EPS) in an effort to regulate energy use, materials, and chemicals.
EPS is also pushing for an environmental fee, charged to the consumer to pay for gadget disposal and recycling. In fact, as of August 1st 2007, the BC government began an e-recycling program which included putting an environmental handling fee on all new electronics.
That doesn't mean recycling is the perfect solution. It's created jobs, but these jobs are often in countries without adequate worker protection. One class of chemicals that computer recycling workers are exposed to is especially concerning: brominated flame retardants (BFRs).
Did You Know?
China and India have received up to half of computers tossed in the US. The problem with some types of BFRs is that they bioaccumulate — that is, they keep on building up inside the human body until they potentially reach toxic levels.
Scientists at Health Canada have indicated North American levels of BFR exposure from sprayed products such as laptops could be doubling every five years, but they also stress that levels are still not high enough to be toxic. That may not be true however for workers who spend the majority of every day dismantling derelict laptops.
There's still hope for tech-lovers, though. Both Japan and Europe have started restricting the use of hazardous substances in tech production. North American industries should follow suite.
Tips: What to do with your tech waste
* Check with the store you bought it from for recycling programs.
* See if local charities or schools collect computers for people who need help getting wired.
* Used cell phones are in high demand in online cash-back programs.
* Take batteries and other tech waste to the hazardous materials depot at your local dump (rather than throwing them in the trash).
Here's hoping the drawer won't stay full for long.
BC government Electronics Recycling Program
CTV on electronic waste collection in Ontario
Bromine Science and Environmental Forum
Information on BFRs
National Geographic, October 2006. "The Pollution Within". (check it out for more information about harmful domestic chemicals)
Arthur Churchyard is filling his mind with an Arts and Science degree at the University of Guelph. Since he can never decide which science he likes best, he consoles himself by writing about all of them. Arthur interviews Guelph researchers and publishes articles about their work in different Canadian magazines and newspapers as part of a group called Students Promoting Awareness of Research and Knowledge (SPARK).