Opinion » Cybernaut


High tech garbage



It’s hard to imagine, but one day that sophisticated computer sitting before you – the one with the top end Intel processor, a full gigabyte of memory, the latest graphics card and a hard drive so big it can hold your entire CD collection and photo album with room to spare – will be no more than another awkward pile of used crap. It will be so obsolete that you won’t even be able to sell it, and even if you do pawn it off second-hand, its days of usefulness are numbered.

Hence the world’s growing e-waste epidemic.

For sheer volume, e-waste is taking up more and more of the landfill every year. By 2005 Canadians will be dumping more than 71,000 tonnes of e-waste annually, or just over two kilograms per person. In the U.S. they are already producing two million imperial tons (about 10 per cent more weight than metric tonnes) of e-waste a year.

The real problem is not the addition of a new form of a waste to an already stressed environment, but rather the fact that computers, cell phones, printers, fax machines and other forms of e-waste are inherently toxic, and have to be treated like toxic waste.

The average computer monitor contains about two kilos of lead. Other nasties include mercury, bromine, cadmium and fluorine. The silicon, magnesium, aluminum, and plastic content is no treat, either. Dump these toxins into a landfill and it’s only a matter of time before they work their way into the soil and water table.

The seriousness of the situation has not been lost on the largest manufacturers and dealers in the industry, who are anxious to be perceived as environmentally-friendly.

I don’t doubt their sincerity on this issue – take a look back in the photo archives and you’ll see that many of the pioneers of the computer industry were Birkenstock-wearing, pony-tail twisting, day-glo coloured hippies. They’ve gone on to become millionaires and billionaires, some of the world’s richest, but maybe they kept a streak of the old idealist alive.

Even if they haven’t, then at least the businessman within them will see the logic of stamping out e-waste. Several U.S. states have already passed legislation against the addition of items like CRT monitors into the waste stream. California has also started to add a recycling fee on top of the cost of computers to cover their expenses down the road.

The National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative, a consortium of computer and electronics companies, was formed to tackle the issue. So far group includes giants like Microsoft, Dell, Hewlett Packard, Panasonic, Sony, Sharp, Nokia and Epson.

Recognizing that voluntary recycling programs are a failure – about 11 per cent of Americans currently recycle their e-waste – NEPSI is looking at different ways to keep products out of the dump. Some of the ideas being looked at include paying customers to recycle, charging customers deposit, adding recycling costs to the sticker price, and providing more money to municipal governments on the frontlines to divert the e-waste to the right processor.

The thing about e-waste is that a lot of it is valuable. The Association of Electronics Recyclers estimates that of the 1.5 billion pounds of electronic equipment produced each year, almost 900 million pounds of that is recyclable. If manufacturers started to build their systems with the goal of making them recyclable, from the cases to the fans, then even more would be available for reprocessing.

That could be good for the bottom line. Kyocera Wireless made more than $1.14 million in 2003 by recycling old cell phones.

In Vancouver there are four good options for recycling your old computers and equipment. Now that you know what the impact of not recycling can be, I suggest you make use of them. Visit www.city.vancouver.ca/engsvcs/solidwaste/landfill/alternative.htm for more details.

Canada, U.S. team up on cyber-security

The Government of Canada has chipped in $85 million to the Defence Department as part of a Canada-U.S. cyber-security program designed to protect crucial systems from attacks. The program will include measures to build stronger barriers against attacks, as well as more funding to improve our response and warn others more quickly about the risks.

Denial of service attacks, worms and viruses, and the constant threat of hackers are costing individuals and businesses dearly. Last year companies around the world spent an estimated $55 billion responding to attacks, or double what was spent in 2002.

Most of the costs are related to lost productivity, as worms and viruses virtually shut down office computers and servers, plug up Internet connections, and force IT departments to drop everything to patch systems. Some companies have been forced to create special departments who deal with nothing but viruses and hackers, which is hard on the bottom line. Some of these departments deal with 40 or more virus threats and virus variants in a single day.

The cyber-security initiatives proposed by the U.S. and Canadian Defence Departments will focus on military systems, but their work will benefit the private sector and individuals as well as they draw a kind of security perimeter around North America.

Add a comment