By Michael Scott, Director, the Humane Society of Canada

The Humane Society of Canada is dedicated to keeping Canadians informed of important environmental issues. One we have not covered in the past is the growing environmental problem created by the disposal of waste information technology (I.T.) equipment. We are pleased to report this issue is on our government’s agenda and we intend to follow the progress of Environment Canada as they and their global colleagues deal with this important challenge.

The Size Of The Problem

In a recent report prepared for the National Office of Pollution Prevention, Environment Canada, it was estimated that in 1999, more than 80,000 tonnes of IT equipment waste were generated and that by the year 2005, this amount will grow to approximately 170,000 tonnes. Many of the materials contained in this waste can be potentially hazardous if improperly managed. For example, printed circuit boards contain heavy metals such as antimony, silver, chromium, zinc, lead, tin and copper and cathode ray tubes of computer monitors contain a soluble form of lead oxide. It was estimated that in 2005, the weight of lead, cadmium and mercury in the IT waste stream would be 3,000 tonnes, 500 tonnes and 1,100 tonnes respectively[1]

One of the initiatives under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), 1999 is the implementation of environmentally sound management (ESM) of hazardous recyclable materials nationally. ESM of both domestic and imported hazardous recyclable materials is also one of this government’s obligations under the Basel Convention and OECD decisions on wastes destined for recovery operations.

The Government of Canada is developing Guidelines on the management of IT waste. These guidelines will provide guidance on the ESM of waste IT in Canada and to ensure that exported and imported waste IT, to and from Canada, are managed to ensure that the receiving facilities have the appropriate environmental and facility practices in place to ensure protection of the environment and human health.

Waste includes computers, monitors, printers, audio and video equipment, peripherals and other electronic devices, and their consumables and media.

The Government is considering many issues including:

Technical Issues

Technical production and assembly issues related to electronic products and peripherals;

The impact of lifespan issues, such as the increasingly shorter lifecycles of electronic products and their peripherals;

Methodology used by industry when collecting and processing Waste IT;

The United States and the European Community have generated significant amounts of data on the increasing creation of electrical and electronic waste and associated toxins.

A significant area of focus is on the supply side of the problem, including how the manufacturers and retailers and users of new electronic products and peripherals contribute to growing volumes of waste in toxic and non-toxic forms.

There is also a need to review the incidence of potentially hazardous substances used in the manufacture of electronic products. The substances of most concern include cadmium, lead, mercury and flame-retardants.

Regulatory Issues

A comprehensive review of the existing regulatory framework as it applies to Waste IT and its components;

Environmental policies affecting Waste IT

The policies, regulations and laws of Canada’s trading partners will directly affect its waste IT situation. There is a sophisticated regime of regulation and environmental law in the EU that deals specifically with waste IT issues. The United States and other countries are also developing bodies of regulation to manage waste IT. Canada imports and exports products that ultimately become waste. These factors combine to create a complex set of relationships between Canada’s issues and its commitments to other nations.

The Government of Canada will be reviewing the international agreements Canada is party to, such as the Basel Convention, NAFTA and the impact they will have on domestic guidelines.

As well as reviewing the existing infrastructure, we need to understand the larger regulatory environment and any planned or proposed changes, in light of international commitments. Factors that need to be considered include:

The need for global regulatory harmony;

The leadership shown by the electronics industry with respect to ESM issues;

The sources of the products that ultimately become waste IT in Canada;

Multi jurisdictional issues

Incentives to move the costs of waste IT to consumers rather than the general community

Logistical Issues

A review of the logistical issues surrounding the creation, disposition, recycling import and export of Waste IT;

Product lifecycles play an important role in the creation of IT waste. There is a trend towards shorter useful lives of electronic equipment, particularly PC’s and cell phones. Other issues will include the movement of material, manufacturing practices and the disposal or recycling of products and the industry’s ability to cope with the toxic and non-toxic elements of waste IT.

Environmental Issues

Environmental Issues related to the management of Waste IT

Existing environmental controls in Canada, the US, UK, EU, as well as relevant international agreements.

The Government is considering each of the above issues from the perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders, including:

- Federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments in Canada

- Federal and state governments in the United States

- Governments in the United Kingdom and European Union

- Environmental advocates

- Equipment manufacturers

- Industry associations

- Community associations

- Waste management and recycling industry representatives

- Electronics retailers and

- Non-Governmental Organizations

Electronic equipment contains materials which are potentially harmful to people and the environment if not disposed of properly. There are many industry participants who have already established their own targets for reducing waste in their products lifecycle. They are pursuing these goals through changes in the manufacturing processes and increasing recycling opportunities at the back end. Various levels of government have also established or are drafting ESM policies.

Web Based Resources

The following are a sample of websites that offer very useful information on this topic.

Canada Environment Canada Recycling Council of British Columbia CBC News, Marketplace

United States U.S. Environmental Protection Agency BNA Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition

European Union European Environmental Bureau Community Research and Development Information Service Nortel The Institute of Electrical Engineers

United Kingdom Brother SOLDERTEC

[1] Environment Canada, 2000. Information Technology (IT) and Telecommunication Waste in Canada. Prepared by Envirosris for National Office of Pollution Prevention, Environment Canada, October 2000.