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E-waste: Where does the buck stop?


Syd Bolton didn't realize it at the time, but he was way ahead of a wave that eventually turned into the electronics recycling movement.

About 20 years ago, Mr. Bolton started acquiring old computers, removing useable parts and refurbishing out-of-date models. The 37-year-old Brantford software developer was, back then, concerned only with educational value. "Green" thoughts hadn't fuelled his motivation.

Today, however, he finds himself at the forefront of a movement propelled by manufacturers, consumers and governments: What to do with all that electronic garbage we generate?

Compounding the issue of waste disposal - and who should pay for it - is a lack of guidance from the federal government, which has yet to set across-the-board standards for recycling electronic items, whether it be cellphones, televisions or computers, critics say. As a result, recycling and disposal tend to be provided on a piecemeal, regional basis by small operations.

And that makes it difficult for consumers to know what to do or where to turn.

For his part, Mr. Bolton's not-for-profit Personal Computer Museum in Brantford, Ont., has grown by leaps and bounds and recycles just about anything computer-related - from software to games to brochures and components.

He's not alone, however, as similar independent recycling operations have popped up across the country.

"There should be some kind of national government plan, but there isn't," said Mr. Bolton, whose museum took in more than 400 pieces of electronics in a 2008 spring cleanup drive. "It's word of mouth, mostly. We cater to individuals. We try to salvage any machine, from reformatting to new operating systems ... anything we can do to keep items out of the dump."

In Calgary, a similar effort is being made by the Electronic Recycling Association, which helps the public and private sectors deal with unwanted electronic items. The organization, which was established four years ago, collects old computers for donation and recycling primarily in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

ERA managing director Bojan Paduh says a big problem is that people simply dispose of their old equipment even if it still works. More often than not, it ends up in a landfill.

"We believe that the true key to sustainability is to reuse rather an recycle," Mr. Paduh said. "Recycling should occur at the very end-of-life of the equipment, not because one specific person no longer needs it.

Numbers help explain the scope of the problem. Although there are no national figures, a look at ERA's experience drives the message home.

Since its founding in 2004, ERA has grown from 100 municipal collection sites in Alberta handling 9,000 electronic items each month to more than 220 collection sites handling more than 41,000 items a month.

By the end of the 2007-08 fiscal year, the Alberta program had recycled more than 1.1 million electronic components, including 176,000 televisions, 336,000 computers, 427,000 monitors and 198,000 printers, diverting more than 21,000 metric tonnes from landfills in the province.

But what's missing, Mr. Paduh said, is a federal program that incorporates guidelines for consumers, manufacturers and retailers.

"The federal government should set up a program that sets an even playing field and even regulations across the country to ensure that the manufacturers and retailers are responsible for the fees and costs of recycling," he said. "This would ensure that the fees do not get passed on to the general public."

In Toronto, Jo-Anne St. Godard, executive director the Recycling Council of Ontario, has been monitoring proposed provincially mandated "stewardship" laws that would make manufacturers of electronics responsible for waste when customers are finished using their products.

The intent of the law would be threefold, she says:

To fund the infrastructure and recycling industry;

To remove the burden from municipalities, which generally end up managing e-waste at their landfill sites;

To have manufacturers incorporate any future recycling expenditures into the original cost of producing their products.

What has happened to this point, however, is the formation of Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, an industry-backed group that is developing a national electronics end-of-life program. The not-for-profit organization has a mandate to design, promote and implement sustainable solutions for Canada's e-waste.

And some manufacturers, such as Toshiba Corp. and Dell Inc. take equipment from any manufacturer for recycling free of charge with no purchase necessary, though there are some restrictions on the type of equipment accepted. Others, such as Lenovo Group Ltd. and Hewlett-Packard Co., will recycle computers for a fee.

Yet a concerted, nationwide effort to clearly define the process of e-waste management is still not in place, industry experts say.

"What is inadvertently happening is that industry gathers together to protect their interests and avoid extra costs, so they agree on and fix 'eco' fees that are directed to the consumer," Ms. St. Godard said.

"They justify this by saying that this 'educates' the consumer into realizing and even feeling good about paying a fee to support environmental protection. [Provincial] governments across Canada are examining these programs to see how to fix the regulation to prevent these fees."

While the legal standards are being ironed out, consumers gravitate to not-for-profit agencies such as ERA and the Personal Computer Museum.

"People see what we are about and they feel they are doing some good by avoiding the dump and bringing their electronic items to us," Mr. Bolton said.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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