December 11, 2000

First Canadian baseline study provides overview of  IT, telecom waste quantities, management options

The first Canadian analysis of information technology (IT) and telecommunication (telecom) waste currently being generated in this country has been completed for the National Office of Pollution Prevention. Prepared by the Toronto consulting firm Enviro RIS, the study also surveys existing recovery and recycling initiatives for this equipment and estimates the growth of this waste stream in the near future.

   The study was carried out in response to a growing debate about the fate of used, outdated or otherwise scrap IT and telecom equipment, which to this point had only anecdotal information as a basis. This survey, explained Duncan Bury of the NOPP, is the first quantifiable, national examination of this waste stream. He noted that it focuses on typical office equipment such as personal computers (PCs), monitors, laptop computers, peripherals such as printers and scanners, telephones, mobile phones and facsimile (fax) machines. Large equipment such as mainframe computers and telecom switching stations was excluded from the study scope.

   IT and telecom waste has become the subject of increasing attention in direct proportion to the pace at which advances in this technology are making "last month's models" obsolete. A faster rate of obsolescence will, in turn, increase the quantity of IT and telecom equipment entering the waste stream. Using what it calls a "Waste Flow Tool," the study estimates that almost 34,000 tonnes of IT equipment waste were disposed in 1999; approximately 15,600 tonnes were recycled; 24,500 tonnes were sent for re-use; and 6,100 tonnes were put into storage.

   Of the IT waste disposed, PCs and servers accounted for an estimated 10,800 tonnes, monitors made up about 10,700 tonnes, peripherals made up approximately 11,500 tonnes and laptops accounted for just under 1,000 tonnes.

   By 2005, the study projects these figures to rise to a total of 67,300 tonnes of IT waste disposed, 43,400 tonnes recycled, 47,800 tonnes re-used, and 12,000 tonnes stored. PCs and servers will constitute an estimated 23,300 tonnes of the total IT waste that will be disposed, with monitors making up almost 24,500 tonnes, peripherals accounting for about 17,400 tonnes and laptops making up about 2,100 tonnes.

   Quantities are considerably smaller for telecom wastes, with 1999 totals including just under 3,000 tonnes of telephones, fax machines and mobile phones disposed, almost equal quantities recycled and re-used (approximately 2,250 tonnes in each category), and only 480 tonnes put into storage. By 2005, the study says these totals will rise to approximately 4,300 tonnes disposed, 3,700 tonnes re-used, 4,000 tonnes recycled and 790 tonnes stored.

   The study points out that Canada has a relatively well-established infrastructure for handling waste telephones because until recently there were only a few companies in the telephone business. With more companies providing telecom services, it says there will be more options for managing telephone discards and recycling/re-use will likely be managed by a larger number of players.

   The management of IT waste is important both because of the high intrinsic value of the equipment itself as well as its components, and because of the toxic materials content of this equipment. These materials can be hazardous if not properly managed, the study points out, citing metals such as silver, chromium, zinc, lead, tin and copper in printed circuit boards. Of particular concern, it adds, is the lead oxide used in cathode ray tubes (CRTs) because it is in a soluble form. While technologies are available to refurbish and recycle most IT equipment, this area of activity is less developed for CRTs.

   PCs and monitors disposed in Canada in 1999 contained an estimated total of 1,300 tonnes of lead, along with approximately two tonnes of cadmium and 0.5 tonnes of mercury. These totals are predicted to rise to approximately 3,000 tonnes of lead, 4.5 tonnes of cadmium and 1.1 tonnes of mercury by 2005, based on a calculated increase in the quantity of PCs and monitors disposed, to 47,800 tonnes, and the assumption that the composition of this equipment will not change greatly by that time.

   Infrastructure for re-use and recycling of IT waste is relatively undeveloped in Canada at this point, but is beginning to grow quickly. The study includes a Canada-wide summary of re-use and recycling programs being carried out by non-profit organizations, municipalities and corporations.

   Some technology changes are on the horizon, such as the development of components made from less toxic materials or containing lower amounts of toxic materials, the study notes. Many IT equipment manufacturers, it adds, are also incorporating features designed to facilitate upgrading (thus prolonging the service life of IT equipment) and/or end-of-life dismantling and recycling. Advancements such as the development of comprehensive units, incorporating printing, faxing, scanning and copying capabilities, may contribute to reducing the IT waste stream in the long term.

   These types of initiatives are being pushed along by worldwide trends in corporate environmental programs such as ISO 14001 and Extended Producer Responsibility, whose impact is starting to be felt by North American IT equipment manufacturers. The study cites companies such as IBM, Apple and Compaq, which have implemented Design for the Environment (DfE) programs.

   That a substantial quantity of IT waste is in storage is believed to be due to the fact that generators are willing to re-use or recycle it but do not know how to do so and are unwilling to discard equipment that cost a lot of money only a few years ago. The study notes that a comprehensive directory would help to reduce and redirect the IT waste stream into appropriate management options. It recommends that a complete listing of all companies and organizations dealing with IT waste in Canada be developed, and that a detailed survey of all of these companies be done to gain an understanding of their operations and determine their capacity, along with any barriers to increased recovery.

   Management of IT waste faces further challenges in terms of business structure and markets. The study notes that the IT business in Canada is characterized by numerous suppliers and agents, but relatively little actual manufacturing; most of this is done in the U.S. or overseas. The telecom business, on the other hand, involves a small number of companies, and the two differing industry structures will have to be taken into consideration in developing policy options for dealing with these wastes.

   The study also revealed that a number of companies had been sending a considerable amount of equipment to China. China, however, stopped accepting specific end-of-life electronics in April of this year, including IT and telecom equipment as well as several types of household appliances. The Chinese ban on IT waste may significantly affect a number of the companies in Canada that deal with this waste.

   Finally, the consultants acknowledge that their survey is a relatively preliminary document, and indicate that more detailed information is needed in order to provide a basis for future recovery strategies. For example, leased IT and telecom equipment is easier to recover, but an estimated 75% of IT equipment in Canada is purchased; this pathway, therefore, should be more closely examined on its own. An update on the survey should be undertaken within the next two years, to incorporate more detailed and up to date data as well as newer trends in IT and telecom equipment.

   The NOPP's Bury said the study is being distributed to the provinces through the Canadian Council of Ministers of Environment (CCME), which has a working group dedicated to developing proposals for solid waste management (including IT). Its findings, he noted, will also be of interest to companies in the IT and telecom sector, as well as environmental organizations. The NOPP has also begun discussing the study findings with the Information Technology Association of Canada.

   More information is available from the NOPP, Sustainable Consumption Division, Environment Canada, 891953-9086. The IT and Telecom Waste in Canada study may also be viewed on Environment Canada's Web site, www.ec.gc.ca/nopp/sustainable/itwaste/indexE.cfm .

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