It’s time to recycle those old electronics

9 Aug

By Geoff Meeker

September 9, 2013 – If your basement is anything like mine, it is populated by old TV sets, computers, stereo components and other electronics, either broken or obsolete. If piled up together, it would probably fill a 10 X 12 room.

In other words, I’d free up a lot of floor space if I got up the inclination to remove all that junk. Trouble is, much of it still works and I hate to bring it to the landfill.

Now, with last month’s launch of the Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA), there is an environmentally responsible alternative to dumping unwanted technology. Now, you can bring it to one of 16 drop-off points across the province for recycling.

But there’s a catch. You have to pay for it, not during drop-off but through the implementation of a new Environmental Handling Fee (EHF) on future purchases of all new electronics. The fees range from $2.50 for portable computers to $7.75 for printers to $10.50 for desktop computers to $42.50 for large screen TV sets. There’s more, but that gives an idea of the fee spread.

That’s right, the price of new gear just went up. And the fee is taxable, meaning you will pay the EHF plus 13 percent.

Do we really need this extra expense? Or were we better off carting our old electronics to the landfill – for free? That was the first question I asked, during a telephone interview with Terry Greene, EPRA Program Director.

“Manufacturers and retailers of these products have a (legislated) obligation within the province to make sure there is an end-of-life electronics recovery process,” he said. “To put that in place, we need a way to fund the program. We’ve got the expense of collecting the materials from various locations around the province and then we have to transport it to consolidation facilities and take it to the processor outside the province. And we have the cost of administration of the program and making sure there is public awareness of it. So that’s where the fee comes in.”

But are we really better off? Doesn’t much of the equipment wind up in a landfill anyway?

“Small amounts will end up in the landfill,” Greene said. “First of all, anything that is considered to be hazardous material is removed before any other recycling effort is undertaken. For example the two hazardous materials that are in electronic components, particularly the older ones, are the lead that’s in the cathode ray tubes in computer and TV screens, and then a small amount of mercury that’s in the fluorescent lights and bulbs used to light screens in LCDs. Then there is the process of dismantling the rest of the unit to take back the plastics, metals, glass, and precious metals in the operating system. By the time that’s done, you’ve got very little left to move to the landfill.”

Okay, that’s good to know. But why, I wondered aloud, are the fees low on some components but so much higher on others? An extra $48 on a big screen TV (with taxes in) is a big chunk of change.

“The EHF are in direct relation to the cost of handling the material itself, as opposed to the value of the electronics,” Greene said. “For example, we set a higher fee for large screen TV and monitors because they have more weight, require more handling and cost more to ship to the processor.”

The program is retroactive for all equipment no matter how long you’ve had it, so you can even bring in that old Philco Ford TV that is gathering dust in the crawlspace under the stairs.

“There’s not much point launching a program that takes into account only those electronics that will be purchased into the future,” Greene explained. “We also want to get out of the system any old electronics that people have. In fact, we’ve recovered already about 30 tonnes since we launched on August 1 and I can assure you that within that there is a lot of older electronics.”

The cost of the program is being borne entirely by the consumer. Manufacturers do not contribute. Their responsibility, Greene said, is to continue innovating – creating smaller, more compact electronics with even smaller environmental footprints – and to purchase the recovered materials from the recyclers. Fair enough, but it would have been nice if they had kicked in some of the cost as well, especially those manufacturers who enjoy hefty profit margins based on manufacturing their products using cheap foreign labour.

That said, I’m sold. This is a great program and I’m happy to get behind it. But Greene made one other point that bears repeating: if the electronics are still in working order try to re-use them, by donating to Computers for Schools or giving them away through freecycle.org.

Now, who wants to help me move all this junk out of the basement?

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