Community Environment Alliance (CEA), a Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that works to educate people on environment protection and resource conservation, has hit upon a novel solution for Canada's burgeoning electronic waste (e-waste) problem. Under its Share-IT programme, people who want a computer - but cannot afford to buy one - are given one free of cost.
CEA refurbishes old computers - including computer monitors, printers, scanners and other hardware - all of which would otherwise just add to the country's burgeoning e-waste. The finished products are distributed among those who need them: school children, families on government dole, new immigrants and senior citizens.
In Toronto, it is not uncommon to find old PCs abandoned on kerbs, placed near garbage bins by owners who have bought newer models. These obsolete models are picked up by garbage trucks along with other trash. Other old computers remain in basements and attics after being replaced by newer, faster models. Eventually, most old PCs are transported to landfills.
Environment Canada, the federal government ministry, estimates that in 2005 alone, Canadians would have thrown away 3.15 million obsolete computers and servers, 3.2 million monitors and one million laptops. This hi-tech trash will be transported to landfills in Asia and Africa, where poor workers will manually hammer it open for the small quantity of gold and copper inside.
There are no laws in Canada to prevent obsolete computers from reaching landfills. Some provinces and corporations have started recycling, but their efforts are too diffused and too wishy-washy to make a dent in the e-waste being sent to developing countries. Legally, computer manufacturers have no responsibility for old equipment.
It was a picture of a woman working in a landfill in India, hammering a computer, that proved to be the starting point for CEA Executive Director Ranjana Mitra. "The picture stayed with me. It completely turned me off. I realised that people working in landfills in India, China and Bangladesh are being exposed to toxins like lead, mercury and cadmium, which can result in neurological and reproductive damage. I started thinking, why do we dump these products and cause permanent damages to future generations?"
Mitra migrated to Canada from India in 1998 with a degree in architecture from Jadavpur University, Kolkata and a Masters degree in city planning from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. To pursue her interest in ecological planning, she opted for a second Masters degree in Environment Management from the University of Toronto.
A computer monitor, when broken down, releases the toxic metals inside. Typically, lead - which could damage the central nervous system, kidneys and vascular systems - comprises 0.7 to 2.7 per cent of the total waste from a monitor. It has 0.6 per cent arsenic, which could cause cancer and damage the kidneys. The 0.05 per cent of mercury it contains could damage the kidneys and impair the nervous system. These toxins could also seep into the groundwater near landfills and affect large populations.
This knowledge was the starting point for the Share-IT programme, explains Mitra. This programme to reduce e-waste was started with a three-year, US$2,19,000 grant from the provincial government's grant giving agency, Ontario Trillium Foundation. Share-IT's mantra is that if electronic products can be refurbished and reused, dumping and recycling should not be options. The programme, started in 2003, is one of the six programs CEA offers.
CEA's core mandate is to promote sustainability through education and empowerment. Its six programs include a Sustainability Education Program, Eco-Art in Action (to "create treasure out of trash"), Healthy Community Initiative, Mobile Take Back Program (to reuse old mobile phones), and Newcomers' Support Initiative (to help new immigrants).
Mitra found that sourcing computers in Toronto was no problem. As repairing electronics is costlier than buying a new product, finding individuals and corporations ready to donate their obsolete models is easy.
She found that the average age of computer use in Canada is less than two years. Says Mitra, "We also found a definite demand for computers. School assignments need to be typed out on computers, and the public library offers only half-an-hour of use. Getting a computer for the home is a definite priority for families with children. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to buy a computer." Similarly, new immigrants need a computer to find employment opportunities. Many of them cannot afford to buy a computer.
Since August 2005, when the distribution of computers started, Share-IT has utilised 10 tonnes of e-waste. In other words, 100 computers have been distributed among the needy. Mitra's aim is to distribute 1,500 computers by the end of 2006.
The strength of the programme is that it links community needs with environmental management and sustainable development. Mitra says, "Environmental organisations are not connected with social organisations in Toronto's NGO sector. I figured that this is where something could be done. With Share-IT, my objective was to link ecological integrity, social well-being and economic development."
Working from a modest warehouse situated in Toronto's South Asian suburb, Brampton, Mitra and her team of two IT (information technology) professionals and numerous volunteers try and ensure that the computers they distribute are designed to last. Mitra says, "We make sure that the computer has the software programs needed by the new user."
After a computer reaches Share-IT, an assessment takes place to see if it can be upgraded and re-used. Once this is done, the necessary hardware and software is installed. Mitra says, "We are a Microsoft-authorised refurbishing agent. We try and make the end product perfect, because we know the clients we serve do not have the means to buy and install new software." People who need computers are referred to Share-IT by other community organisations. But, of course, individuals can also approach us directly."
Share-IT plans to focus on cell phones next. Mitra says: "Share-IT could be a model emulated in other parts of the world. Initiatives like this could do a lot to reduce e-waste globally."