WHERE GADGETS GO TO DIE IN CANADA
WHERE GADGETS GO TO DIE IN CANADA
2008-03-21 at 11:30:52 am #21589
Where gadgets go to die
canada March 2008 When you retire your old cellphone, computer or iPod, the fate of the corpse is rarely given much thought. If you’re not bequeathing it to someone else, it often ends up in the trash.It shouldn’t. There are an astonishing number of downright unfriendly substances in the average electronic device: lead and beryllium and mercury and lithium, for example. The right place for that old gear is a recycling depotBut all recyclers are not created equal. You think you’re doing the right thing by dropping off the old equipment at a recycling depot (and you are), but guess what – the “recycler” may simply be shipping your old devices off to foreign shores where they are unsafely destroyed, polluting the environment and damaging the health of workers exposed to the toxins.That’s not only deceptive (you think your discards are being properly disposed of, and they’re not), it’s illegal. In 1994, the Basel Convention banned the export of hazardous waste from richer to poorer countries, and Canada is a signatory to that convention (sadly, the U.S. has so far refused to sign). Since then, a watchdog organization known as BAN has monitored and lobbied against this trade, which it refers to as “the toxic effluent of the affluent,” revealing the damage it is doing in reports and several hard-hitting videos chronicling practices such as the burning of old computer equipment, which poisons the air, land and water.
The Globe and Mail
Some computer vendors, including HP, are working to combat the problem by offering free environmentally sound recycling of old devices, toner, and ink cartridges.
The only problem, said Frances Edmonds, HP Canada’s director of environmental programs, is that you can’t force people to give the old products back. To make them want to do so, HP has invested in education campaigns that start in junior kindergarten, teaching children about environmentally responsible practices, and go all the way up to the university level, where it has endowed a chair in corporate social responsibility at York University’s Schulich School of Business.HP’s recycling partner is Sims Recycling Solutions, a company that guarantees neither it nor its subcontractors ship any electronic detritus overseas. I had a tour of the Sims facility in Brampton, Ontario, which receives equipment from all over Canada, and discovered what a complex business proper recycling really is.
According to Cindy Coutts, senior vice president at Sims, the company developed its technology in the late 1980s as part of a mining operation. It soon discovered that recycling is simply another form of mining – in this case, of resources that would otherwise end up polluting a landfill. And those resources can be reused to cut down on the amount of the other sort of mining that is necessary.Although, she said, only about eleven per cent of electronics waste is recycled, Sims still processes 1.5 million pounds (680,389 kilograms) per month. The plant’s maximum throughput is 10,000 pounds (4500 kg) per hour.You’d think, with that kind of throughput, that the plant would be grubby and cluttered. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While you can’t eat off the floors, the area is extremely clean – and very noisy. Visitors and staff alike wear hearing protection, as well as safety glasses and hard hats. The rumble of machinery is punctuated by the beeps of the forklifts whizzing around, transporting recyclables to their ultimate fate.
All recyclables come in on pallets. They’re weighed, and each item receives a bar code that is scanned at each stage of the process so the company can, if necessary, issue a certificate of destruction to the owner (some corporations and government agencies require them).The first stage of the process is manual. Workers remove toner, ink, light bulbs (they often contain mercury), batteries, and other dangerous materials from the equipment, to be disposed of appropriately. Monitor glass, which contains lead, is also removed. The remaining bits (the “carcass”) are tossed into large cardboard boxes mounted on pallets, or, if they’re too big for the box, moved aside.
From that point, the items are virtually untouched by human hands. The boxes are taken by forklift to a conveyor belt, and larger items like photocopiers or network printers end up by an elevator. Both conveyor and elevator head for the same destination: a giant shredder that munches the carcasses into chunks. Those chunks are fed to a second shredder, and its output to a third, which finally spits out pieces of about 5 cm. The cardboard boxes and pallets are retained for re-use, and are recycled when their effective life is over.
That’s not the end of the process, though. The shredded pieces are a mish-mash of bits of wire and plastic and metal that need to be separated for proper disposal or re-use.First, the stream passes over a screen, and pieces of wire and other small bits fall through. They’re about 4 – 6 per cent of the material, and are sent to a smelter in Quebec, which safely extracts and reclaims the copper and gets rid of anything else (the plastic covering on the wire, for example).Next, magnets grab ferrous metal from the waste; it accounts for about 40 per cent of the stream, and it, too, ends up at a smelter.Finally, a device called an eddy current separator uses the material’s conductive properties to separate out clean aluminum.
The remaining detritus, a mixture of copper and plastics and other trace metals from circuit boards and other components, is sent off to the smelter as well, where it is safely burned and the metals recovered. There is, said Coutts, no commercially viable process yet for recycling the many kinds of plastic, so it is currently used as fuel, and the emissions scrubbed to remove toxins. However, a pilot project is in progress that will enable specific plastics to be recovered and recycled.Even the dust from the air in the plant is collected and processed to remove recyclable materials such as metals, and the water system is isolated so anything that gets into the drains can be safely dealt with before it escapes into the environment. And employees are tested regularly to make sure they haven’t inadvertently been exposed to anything nasty.The result of what is really a series of simple, but carefully managed processes is a cascade of environmental benefits. Metal recovered is metal that doesn’t have to be mined. Proper handling of the toxic components prevents poisoning of our air, land and water (and some of them, like mercury, believe it or not, can be reclaimed and re-used). And the remaining scrap does not end up cluttering our overtaxed landfills.It’s well worth the small effort of sending those old electronics off to be properly recycled.