Information Technology and Telecom Waste Initiatives

From: Environment Canada

What is Telecom and IT Waste?

Information Technology (IT) and Telecom waste typically include home and office computers, monitors, laptops, servers, scanners, printers and other peripherals as well as telephones, facsimile machines and mobile phones.

Why the Disposal of these Products Becoming an Increasing Problem?

The amount of computer and telecom equipment waste in Canada is becoming a concern. Everyday in Canada, more new IT and telecom equipment is sold and more of the existing IT and telecom equipment becomes obsolete and is discarded. Today, this equipment is either recycled or finds its way to disposal facilities, mainly landfill sites.

Between 1992 and 2000, Canadians disposed of 119, 177 tonnes of PCs and monitors, enough to fill 953 Olympic size swimming pools.

In 1999, the estimated quantity for disposal of IT and telecom equipment was 36,933 tonnes (42%), 26,760 tonnes was sent for reuse (30%) 17,848 tonnes was recycled (20%) and 6,610 tonnes was put in storage (8%).

In the year 2005, it is projected that Canadians will dispose of 71,652 tonnes of IT equipment (39%), 51,220 tonnes will be reused (28%) 47,515 tonnes will be recycled (26%) and 12,734 tonnes will be stored (7%).

Why Can Telecom and Information Technology Waste be Hazardous?

Intact forms of IT and telecom equipment are generally not considered to be hazardous waste in Canada. However, if improperly managed, IT and telecom equipment can release to the environment substances such as mercury, lead and cadmium that are considered toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999. In fact, it is estimated that 1,356 tonnes of lead was contained in the PCs and monitors disposed in 1999 in Canada. This equipment also contained approximately two tonnes of cadmium and 0.5 tonnes of mercury.

Information Technology and Telecom Waste Reuse and Recycling

There are a number of organizations, both for-profit companies and non-profit agencies, across Canada that are involved in IT and telecom equipment reuse. These organizations typically receive used IT equipment (large amounts from private companies in many cases), which they test to see if it can be easily reused. Repairs and minor modifications are often made to enhance the reuse potential of the equipment (e.g., adding memory to the hard drive, etc.). Where pieces of equipment can not easily be reused, they are dismantled to recover valuable parts, which can be used in the operation or sold to other operations. Non-reusable pieces are sent for recycling. ‘Reuse’ companies pay for some components delivered, handle some for free, and sometimes charge a fee for handling the equipment, depending on its age.

In addition, some non-for-profit refurbishing and recycling programs are making their mark. Of those is the Computers for Schools program, lead by Industry Canada. Computers for Schools runs over 60 workshops across Canada and works with institutions, communities, business and governments to redistribute refurbished computer equipment to Canadian elementary schools and secondary schools. The Computers for Schools program also involves various companies such as Sears and Canadian Tire that donate their shipping services to deliver old computers to the program. To date, they have saved over 350 000 computers from being landfilled.

Time for Action!

The management of hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable materials is a shared responsibility in Canada. The federal government controls the inter-provincial and international movements of hazardous wastes and hazardous recyclable materials. Provincial authorities regulate the siting and licensing of hazardous wastes facilities within their jurisdictions. Municipalities typically manage local landfill, household hazardous waste depots and blue box recycling programs.

There is a growing recognition in Canada and internationally of the need to better manage the end of life aspects of IT waste due to increasing volume of obsolete electronic equipment and due to possible impact to the environment and human health resulting from their mismanagement. Because of its complexity, environmentally sound management of waste IT products requires cooperation among manufacturers, users and recyclers of electronic products, as well as government authorities, to ensure that such materials are managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.

The Government of Canada strongly supports the environmentally sound management of hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable materials and is actively working to address the management of waste IT, both domestically and internationally. The Government of Canada is working with numerous partners on this issue to address many aspects in the life cycle management of obsolete electronic equipment including manufacturers, generators, collectors and recyclers.

Domestic Action

No doubt, one of the best contributing factors would be to encourage industry to design cleaner products that contain fewer hazardous components and that can be more easily upgraded or recycled. The Telecom and IT sector are doing just that.

But in the meanwhile, we are working closely with the Canadian electronics industry sector to develop a national, industry-funded product take-back and recycling program for post-consumer electronics.

Federal government departments (such as Environment Canada, Industry Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and others), provincial environment ministries and Canadian municipalities are actively involved in promoting this producer responsibility program.

Industry plans to roll-out its electronics take-back and recycling program over a 4-5 year period, starting in 2003. Initially the program will capture computers, computer peripherals and televisions. It is anticipated that the scope of the program will broaden to include other types of consumer electronics as the program matures. The goal of this program is to recover electronic scrap from consumers and ensure that it is reused, recycled or (where this is not possible) disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.

International Action

Internationally, Canada is a Party to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The goal of the Basel Convention is to control the exports of hazardous waste in order to prevent them from being exported to countries that may not have the capacity to manage them in an environmentally sound manner. Parties to the Basel Convention have agreed on the need to address this emerging issue. At the most recent conference of the Parties, in December 2002, Canada strongly supported the decision to include electronic scrap as a priority for environmentally sound management projects.

Canada was also instrumental in initiating an agreement between the Basel Convention and 10 major manufacturers to develop an international program for environmentally sound management of old cell phones.

Canada implements its obligations under the Basel Convention to control the import and export of hazardous waste through regulations under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Under the Export and Import of Hazardous Wastes Regulation, exports of hazardous waste require notification and consent of the country of import before any export permit is issued. These regulations also prohibit exports of hazardous waste to countries that prohibit imports.

Electronic wastes would be subject to the Export and Import of Hazardous Wastes Regulations if it contains mercury switches, batteries or PCBs, or if it is shredded and could leach hazardous constituents into the environment. This definition is currently being reviewed as part of on-going amendments to these regulations.

Canada has been promoting the development of international guidelines on environmentally sound management of various types of hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable materials as well as promoting the sharing of this information with countries that are member of the Basel Convention.

Want to Get Involved?

Things you can do to help manage this environmental issue:

  • to the extent possible, upgrade your PC rather than replace it;
  • check with your equipment brand owner for their product take-back policies and programs;
  • donate your old computer equipment to a family member, friend or a charitable organization;
  • find a location in your community that accepts old computer equipment for refurbishing;
  • check with your local computer store or municipality to learn about disposal or recycling options in your area;
  • keep informed by surfing the Green Lane and by reading EC’s EnviroZine; and
  • increase your communities’ awareness of the issue by communicating this information!

Additional information can be found at these Web sites: