Trash Talk

Today's Technology, Tomorrow's Landfill

BY Dino DiGiulioPublished Sep 1, 2005

Lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, organotins, brominated flame retardants, phthalates and tributyl tin sitting in a landfill. This cancer causing, birth defecting and species destroying cocktail is not a George Bush supported "clean coal" burn off, nor the latest military rescue residue. It's what happens after the bomb of last year's tech gadget is dropped on the curb.

In every cell phone, computer and video game system is a feat of modern science: a circuit board comprised of chemicals synthesised in ways Gaia never dreamed of. The synthetic chemicals that empower engineers to build bigger and faster utopian machines just don't biodegrade. Instead they sit inside of the fatty tissue of every animal that ingests them — therefore whoever eats them accumulates these anti-nutrients in their beer belly. Can you taste that liver damage in the liver, honey?

But garbage collectors dispose of these technological wonders safely and appropriately, do they not? Canadian cities St. John's, Halifax, Charlottetown, Fredericton, Toronto, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg send it straight to the pile. Montreal will take the computer tower to the dump, but not the monitor, while Vancouver and Calgary won't pick it up at all. While most municipalities have centres or host events for recycling these machines, you have to have the bureaucratic wherewithal to find out when and where.

In terms of national strategy, Parliament is following the cue of our neighbours to the south by doing... nothing. The model of progressive legislation comes from the European Union, which has created the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEED). This initiative defines specific criteria for collection, treatment, recycling and recovery of e-waste. Users can — get this — return their goods free of charge and the manufacturers are expected to find a suitable way to deal with them.

We may be behind the Europeans on the e-waste issue, but there are still a number of things we can do. If it's a computer you're junking, you can get all geek on it: set it up as a file server on your home network, connect it to your stereo and make it your giant iPod, or play with Linux, that other operating system. There's a scaled-down version, Tiny Linux, that will run on a 386 with 8 MB of Ram.

If you're not into nerding out, there are other ways to be rid of the burden of the beige box. A number of the bigwigs have gotten into the recycling game because of the EU's laws: Apple, Dell, Gateway, HP, and IBM all offer recycling programs and some even take parts regardless of brand. IBM recycles everything down to the wires, but charges $29.99 for the privilege, while the more charitable Dell and HP have partnered with the National Cristina Foundation to send "useable" machines to needy recipients. Retailer Office Depot has gone green too, taking rechargeable batteries and cell phones free of charge.

Of course, if charity is in your heart, you can go directly to the source: many used goods peddlers cycle profits back to charities directly (Salvation Army, Goodwill) or indirectly (Value Village). Other companies and charities will refurbish your abacus on steroids for low-income families, school computer labs, developing nations, or for charitable career training programs and bureaucracies. Even Montreal Canadiens' Guy Lafleur, who used to smoke cigarettes on the bench, has turned environmental activist; he endorses the Call2Recycle organisation.

Before you dispose of the old machine a simple consideration must be met: protecting your data. Safe surfing should be practised by wiping your drive clean of essentials like passwords, receipts, stolen software and music. Windows and Mac systems come with disc utilities that will overwrite the data on the drive and they do a pretty good job. Unfortunately this software won't stop a hardcore hacker from getting your info. Get a third party program (Norton offers utilities to do just that for both the Wintel type chip and the power-PC variety) to put the fear of identity theft at ease.

From plastic keys to LCD, circuit board to GUI it's quite a luxury to have these amazing processing powerhouses at our fingertips. Yet it is important to be aware of just what a responsibility these heavy metal-infected boxes bring with them. So please recycle, reuse or donate instead of lazily bombing the curb.

Click Before You Ditch

Big Boys
Apple (
Boutique computers go bye-bye.
Dell (
Dell does donations, partnered with the National Christina foundation.
Gateway (
Trade in or recycle through this Gateway.
Hewlett-Packard (
HP even takes printer cartridges.
IBM's buyback service will give you cash for a modern machine; otherwise you'll have to fork it over.

National Do-Gooders
Reboot Canada (
Reapportioning the old tech for charities, training and the less fortunate.
Salvation Army (
The charity with the Rufus Wainright song.
Value Village (
Some charitable portioning from a profit-making company.
Goodwill (
Find a location near you for the people helping people to get back on the job.
Call2Recycle (
The other guy from Home Improvement and Guy Lafleur give this charity the thumbs up.
Computers for Schools (
Get the kids what they need - a way to play video games when the teacher's not looking.

Do-gooders In Your Hood
Electronic Recycling Association of Alberta (
Why doesn't every province have one of these non-profits?
Toronto Environmental Alliance (
TEA is more than just a relaxing cup; it's a way to get involved.
Earth 911 (
Enter your postal code for service near you.

Latest Coverage