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April 01, 2010

The e-scrap heap

Recycling is the best way to short circuit e-waste dumping

Pepper Rodriguez

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Ever wonder where that old Commodore computer ended up, or that Atari console? How about that old black-and-white TV set that needed at least a couple of linebackers to lift? Well, chances are, they may have ended up in a junkyard, or pawnshop or museum. Where we don’t want them ending up in, is the landfill.

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is one of the biggest growing concerns in the world today. Think about it, how much new electronic gadgets are introduced in the market every day, and how often do we replace the ones we have? Where’s your Betamax or VHS player? More than likely they’ve been replaced by a DVD player, and that one’s probably on its way out too, once you get the BluRay player you want.

We’ve been replacing our electronic goods at such an alarming clip that experts say e-waste is that fastest growing waste stream in the world. This is because technology is evolving at such a rapid rate, that it is often easier and less expensive to replace an old TV or computer than to fix it.

But that begs the question: Where does this e-waste go? Especially since every one of them is filled with materials that are harmful to the environment — and I don’t mean just the plastic casing, but lead (there’s about 10- to 15-pounds of lead in each TV), mercury (scanners, cell phones, plasma TVs contain the substance) and a host of other toxic materials, as well.

Fortunately for us in Alberta, we know that our e-waste goes to good use — through recycling.

The Alberta Recycling Management Authority (ARMA) was originally established in 1992 to manage the province’s tire recycling program, it has since evolved to include recycling of electronics, and paint.

AMRA says that Alberta’s electronics recycling program was the first of its kind in Canada and that Albertans have recycled over 2.5 million electronics since the program began in October 2004, translating into more than 46,000 metric tonnes of electronic waste that have been recycled. This includes more than 750,000 computers, 460,000 printers, 830,000 monitors and 430,000 TVs that have been diverted from landfills.

There is no charge to drop off your electronics for recycling at the over 250 collection sites across the province. The electronics recycling program operates only on the fees paid at the point of purchase of new products.  AMRA says these fees are not taxes, as no money from the program goes to government.

For recycling of electronics, ARMA contracts out the work to several firms who are stringently audited and approved by the agency as a transporter and processor of program-qualified electronics. One of them is eCycle Solutions, a private Airdrie-based company that is the largest Canadian-owned electronics recycler by volume and operates six facilities across five provinces.

Think of them as a graveyard for used electronics — from TVs to computers and everything in between. But it’s a useful graveyard that churns out new raw materials like steel, plastic and even precious metals from the scraps. “Some call it urban mining, where you don’t have to strip mine land for virgin material but rather re-use the ones that are already out there,” says Clayton Miller, eCycle’s Director of Communications and Business Development.

“In Calgary alone, we collected and recycled nearly 4.5 million pounds of e-waste last year, and across Canada, eCycle Solutions collected and recycled nearly 50 million pounds of e-waste,” he says.

Miller adds that not only does electronic recycling prevent toxic materials from getting to our landfills and provide a useful source for raw materials, but it also acts as a filter to prevent sensitive information stored in computers from falling to the wrong hands.

“Data contained in laptop and PC hard drives contain personal information that needs to be destroyed properly in order to ensure security for consumers,” he says. “Saying this, it is important that electronics are recycled by government-approved recyclers because there is no way of knowing what happens to your end-of-life electronics — they might be resold with sensitive data still in them or they can be dumped in Third World countries.”

Miller says electronics are recycled using a combination of manual and mechanical systems. Older televisions and monitors are manually disassembled with the various parts sent to approved downstream processors across Canada and the U.S. Computers, laptops, stereos and other non-display devices are shredded using a unique system of magnets, eddy-currents and hand sorting that pulls out the plastic, metal, circuit boards and other reusable materials.

The steel, aluminum and copper metal found in the wires, cables and circuitry is used as feedstock for new products. The glass from television and computer screens is melted down, separating the lead, and reused

in the manufacture of new products. The plastic from computer cases, keyboards and mice are processed to produce plastic flakes or pellets used to make new consumer products. There are even precious metals that can be harvested from these electronics, like gold, but only a very miniscule amount, Miller says.

“The important thing is that we keep these electronic waste and all the hazardous materials they have from our landfills, we have to keep true to the three Rs of the environment — reduce, reuse and recycle,” he adds. 

Where to take electronic waste
The City of Calgary has partnered with private industry to provide several permanent electronics recycling depots. Old (end-of-life) televisions, computer monitors, CPUs (central processing units), laptops, electronic notebooks, printers and some additional devices are accepted at locations listed below (some restrictions apply).

There is no charge to deposit these items designated by the Alberta Recycling Management Authority (ARMA) program. For more information about Calgary’s electronics program call 3-1-1. For more information about the Alberta electronics recycling program contact ARMA at 1-888-999-8762.

These depots are for residential use only. Businesses with electronic waste for disposal can contact eCycle Solutions at 403-945-2611, Recycle-Logic Inc. at 403-266-1012, or GEEP Ecosys at 403-219-3137.

For limits, hours of operation and more information, visit http://www.calgary.ca, then search: electronic recycling.

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5111 Northland Drive N.W.

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