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Recyclables' cycle may end in landfill

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Old electronics -- computers, cell phones and other hardware -- cause health and environmental concerns if not recycled properly. The University of Calgary sends its obsolete electronics to be recycled, but where do they go after that?

U of C associate director of supply chain management and distribution services Dave Miners said computers and electronics that are still in good shape are sold to the general public, staff and students in "Friday surplus sales." Obsolete computers are sent to one of Alberta's registered processors for recycling.

Surplus sales are held every Friday between 12-2 p.m. in the General Services Building.

Miners said he is happy with the way the university conducts electronics recycling.

"By ensuring we send it up to a recycler who handles it in an environmentally responsible manner, we make sure it does not end up in the landfill," said Miners.

Students' Union vice-president operations and finance James Delaney said the SU conducts their own e-waste recycling program, separate from the university.

The university requests each department fill out a form when e-waste is collected. Since the SU is not a department, the form cannot be completed online.

"It is difficult, so we do it ourselves," said Delaney.

The SU recycles electronics for most of its tenants in the food court, Den and Black Lounge as well as SU offices.

"We have a group called the Electronic Recycling Association pick our e-waste up for free and make sure it's all recycled properly," said Delaney.

The ERA is a non-profit organization whose mandate, according to their website, is "reducing electronic waste through the reuse and recycling of unwanted computers, laptops and related equipment."

In order to stop e-waste from going to the landfill, the ERA refurbishes electronics and donates them to charities and other non-profits at no cost.

Any material that is not reusable is sent to one of six-registered electronic waste processors in Alberta. Edmonton and Calgary both have two, while Airdrie and Red Deer have one each.

ERA donations coordinator Chantelle Coddington said charities contact them directly for donations.

"Not only is it not ending up in the landfill just to be buried. It is not being sent overseas and is reused and recycled locally," said Coddington.

However, some charities are located in countries overseas.

Coddington said local charities occasionally make requests on behalf of overseas organizations in need of computers.

"We have had requests in the past for organizations in Calgary who are going to Africa to teach and request equipment to take out there with them," said ERA accounts manager Joanna Trebon. "We only ship working items to third-world countries to help in schools and communities."

U of C development studies professor Caesar Apentiik warned against donating electronics to developing countries.

"A very large percentage of the e-waste comes from donations from developed countries," he said.

Apentiik conducted research on e-waste in Ghana this past summer.

"Recycling companies sometimes collect computers and fridges and realizing that it is more expensive to recycle them, send them to Africa," said Apentiik. "The cost of shipping them to Africa is cheaper than recycling them here."

Alberta's electronics recycling program, which started in 2004, was the first in Canada.

Alberta recycling management authority communications manager Betty Gray said the program "is pretty restrictive." Since its conception, the government has set tight regulations on e-waste recycling.

Gray explained that when electronics reach one of the six Alberta recycling and processing plants, metals, glass and plastics are separated and sold to the market.

"In the electronics program, the metals that are dismantled are not just sold here in Alberta, but are sold into the States and some are sold into Europe," said Gray.

Since the creation of the program, 53,600 metric tonnes of electronics have been recycled.

"When you buy a new laptop or computer here there is a fee included that pays for the program," said Gray.

Gray said prior to the official program, recycling was sold to scrap metal dealers.

Apentiik said a lot of e-waste in developing countries comes from electronics from industrialized nations.

There are landfills of electronics and locals collect metals from them to sell.

"Copper, silver and gold are what they are looking for," said Apentiik. "Sometimes the case of the computer is plastic and there is no use for it."

The predominately young men collecting these materials then break the cases open to get at the metals.

"Most of these fridges and computers have different kinds of poisonous gases or dangerous material, so when they are bent toxins are released into the air and soil," Apentiik said.

Many of the released toxins can seep into drinking water, while others can cause immediate health hazards to scrap metal collectors not wearing protective gear, he said.

However, Apentiik said there are advantages to e-waste collections in Ghana.

"There are a large number of people involved in this industry and it is providing a lot of jobs," he said.

The Ghanaian government has not yet constructed a framework for dealing with the disposal of electronic waste.

"An environmental protection agency that is a branch of the government is working out a model to make sure electronic waste is disposed of properly," said Apentiik. "But it is still at the infancy stage."

Apentiik supports electronic recycling, but encouraged people to be aware of where their donations go.

"Some of the computers end up in villages where there are no computer rooms or electricity," said Apentiik. "They sit in the storeroom because the facilities are not there to accommodate the technology."

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