I have a monster in my closet: a gigantic iMac desktop computer. It works, but not that well, and I don’t have a need for it thanks to a new MacBook. But I can’t just toss that beast in the garbage and sleep soundly at night, so I’ve decided that, because it still functions — despite missing a “%” key and a few other glitches — I’m going to Freecycle it, hopefully to someone who really needs a computer.
However, if I weren’t doing that, I’d definitely want to make sure I was properly disposing of my e-waste, preferably by recycling it.
Recently, I got the chance to interview Frances Edmonds of HP Canada about the software company’s views on e-waste and how they’ve partnered with Sims to achieve some lofty goals in terms of sustainability. HP’s environmental program boasts standards for emissions, energy consumption, waste reduction, chemical elimination, materials innovation, recycling and product return. As well, they’re committed to recovering two billion pounds of electronics and print cartridges by the end of 2010.
Their plant just outside of Toronto has the capacity to recycle over 10,000 pounds of electronics per hour, which you can see if you book a tour, or watch the video here.
When I spoke to Frances over the phone, I asked her various questions about everything from the dangers of mercury and lead in e-waste recycling facilities to the profitability of the whole process. Here are some snippets of our conversation:
How long has the issue of e-waste been a concern for HP?
“Well, about 15 to 20 years ago, HP recognized there was going to be a major issue with e-waste. We traced it and it was ending up in China, where recycling wasn’t being done properly, if at all — they were mainly burning and dumping everything. So we partnered with a Canadian company, Sims, and said to them: Look, we’re a leadership company, we want to do all we can, you’re an expert in metal separation technology, what can we do? So it’s a symbiotic partnership.”
What’s the actual recycling process like?
“We developed technology that represents the state of art in processing complex waste stream, something you don’t just want to put through big crushing machines — like batteries, ink and toners, little mercury vapor tubes in the back of laptop screens, which need to be removed and sent elsewhere … Not only does it take time and energy and resources to remove mercury, but we have to send it downstream to another processing facility where it becomes a new commodity again. You have to make sure you know where every last nut and bolt goes.
“Once all the hazards are removed, you can put a piece of equipment as large as a photocopier through the shredder and it will come out in 5 cm square pieces — and that’s for any type of IT equipment, any mix of metals and plastics. Then it gets separated before being sent to resource recovery. It’s a manual separation first, then a mechanical one, where we pull off steel using magnets and pull off aluminum, so in the end there’s a mixture of copper and plastics.
“The aluminum and steel head straight back into furnaces — the copper can be used for energy value — but that burning of plastic needs to be done safely of course, so there’s a special smelter in Quebec for that. We pay a lot of attention to detail, constantly testing the air, testing employees’ blood levels for lead, etc., and all the dust goes into smelter.”
So how does one actually get an old computer to a recycling facility?
“We want to offer e-recycling to all customers, whether businesses or individuals. Through a program called Planet Partners we offer ink jet and laser jet recycling for free, along with rechargeable batteries and for hardware recycling, we charge the customer but don’t make profit. We’ll also send someone to pick it all up at your door.”
What’s the biggest hurdle you face when it comes to this initiative?
“The highest possible recovery rate is our main concern. We need to get customers aware, interested in what happens to their computers after they’re done. We’re currently grappling with how we can collect all this stuff — it’s hard to get people to go into their basements and pull out their old TVs, so there’s a whole bunch of human behaviour in here to consider. TVs, monitors, CPUs, noteboopks and printers. We’re hoping to keep that harmonized. The way it’s funded right now involves putting an invisible seal on new products … I think cell phones are on second phase, PDAs too.”
Are certain parts of electronics easier to reuse or recycle than others?
“Metals are the ultimate recyclable material, they can be recycled again and again. Copper wiring could be recycled indefinitely; it could have come from the bronze age and still be in use now. Plastics are more difficult, there are issues with older products that contain flame retardants. We can separate plastics, though, and mix stuff with plastic water bottles — that eventually becomes a new ink jet cartridge.”
Which takes more energy: recycling those parts or making new parts from scratch?
“It depends on the age of product. We’ll refurbish what we can, but after a number of years, it’s not economically feasible, so it gets recycled.
“Looking at it very holistically, the whole thing of outsourcing and pretending you’re not responsible for your products after you’re finished with them — you have to take a full life cycle approach, and that’s what differentiates us from out competitors. We have a Design for the Environment program where our teams have product stewards on the design team, who act as a sort of environmental conscience, and without those reminders the engineers won’t consider that. So having that voice in there from the design phase, the very first phase, is extremely important and helps set goals about how we’re going to make our products the most energy efficient. We’re in the top 100 most sustainable corporations worldwide, and that’s not just because of our facilities, the largest impact is with our products.”
What would you the average consumer should think about when purchasing new electronics?
“We just recycled a billion pounds of electronics. It’s not just about the individual product when you’re buying something; you should be looking at what kind of company you want to deal with and support. But it’s hard to put all these messages on the box.”
How do you avoid all the toxic substances and where do they go?
“The biggest concern is mercury, which can come from scanners, batteries, vapor tubes. The EU passed legislation about hazardous substances and lead was another thing they banned, so the industry had to go through sea changes in order to meet these regulations. HP meets these, of course, and doesn’t have any of these materials, but the older products will still contain chemicals like this.”
How is this a financially viable operation? Do you extract any valuable metals?
“Metal prices are high right now but the cost of doing things properly is too much. We hand remove mercury tubes and have to ship it as hazardous waste, so we pay other people to handle it properly and there are the associated downstream costs. If you cut corners you cut costs, but it’s not worth it to us. We do track how much we’re recycling. but we don’t reveal the cost of it.”
Photo at top courtesy of Natalie Behring for Greenpeace on Flickr
Photo of hardware recycling, middle, and a granulator, bottom, courtesy of Hewlett-Packard