E waste: an expensive, toxic problem

As the snow whipped through the Whitehorse landfill, a truck with a 16-metre trailer backed toward a dozen frozen-looking piles of junk. An orange tractor, equipped with two tusk-like forks, quickly roared into action and began digging through the drifts.

As the snow whipped through the Whitehorse landfill, a truck with a 16-metre trailer backed toward a dozen frozen-looking piles of junk.

An orange tractor, equipped with two tusk-like forks, quickly roared into action and began digging through the drifts.

The driver was trying to get underneath the pallets and lift the piles onto the truck – a tricky business with all that snow.

A council of ravens screamed contradictory orders and directions from the top of a nearby garbage bin.

The piles were made up of various electronics – televisions, printers and VCRs, among other things.

All of these electronics contain dangerous toxins like mercury and lead, which could wreak environmental havoc if buried underground with the rest of the city’s trash.

Instead, Whitehorse’s “e-waste” was piled onto pallets, wrapped in cellophane and loaded onto that large trailer to be shipped south to Vancouver.

Once the truck was full of the discarded electronics, it was driven to a scale to be weighed.

There was more than six tonnes of the stuff.

In Vancouver, the city will have to pay 33 cents a pound to have all of that e-waste processed, which means that this shipment is costing the city a little over $4,300.

And that’s just two-months worth.

“We only really started collecting this stuff sometime in September,” said Whitehorse environmental co-ordinator Sabine Schweiger.

“And I think we’re going to see an even bigger increase in the New Year.”

The switch from analog to digital cable may make a lot of people’s TVs obsolete, said Schweiger.

“So we’re anticipating that it’s going to increase even more.”

In the past, the nonprofit organization Computers for Schools accepted all of Whitehorse’s e-waste.

But inundated with old electronic gadgets and gizmos, the organization decided restrict itself to computers, monitors, mice and keyboards.

They are not longer taking printers, fax machines, telephones, TVs, VCRS and the host of other things they accepted before.

“They went back to basics – collecting computers and refurbishing them to get them back out into the community for schools,” said Schweiger.

“They weren’t in a position to be dealing with all of that other e-waste.”

This meant the city had to find a way to prevent electronics from being tossed into the bins, which would eventually pollute the soil and groundwater with highly toxic materials.

“It’s something that’s slipped through the cracks,” said Schweiger.

“We’re now looking at it as a liability that we have if we accept that material into the landfill.”

Now e-waste is separated at the gatehouse and the appropriate tipping fees are charged.

However, these tipping fees are still a work in progress, said Schweiger.

The landfill is currently charging $12 for large items and $5.50 for smaller ones.

“And we now know that that’s not enough to process – we’re not even at a third of a cost.”

Freight cost about $1,800 on the last load.

That’s about the same amount that the city received in tipping fees for that material.

As said above, processing the stuff cost the city an additional $4,300.

In Alberta, where they have a stewardship program, consumers pay $40 up front when they buy a TV or computer.

This money is then used to process the hazardous waste.

The Yukon already does something similar with tires, and it may be the next logical step for the territory’s e-waste.

“That sort of program works really well because if you want the tire you pay for it up front and you don’t really question the extra cost,” said Schweiger.

“Then you feel good about doing the right by bringing it to the landfill for proper disposal.

“And it’s the same for e-waste, so I think that’s why the majority of other provinces have gone that route.”

But regulations take a while to develop.

In the meantime, the city landfill will have to increase its tipping fees to make up for the extra costs.

And whenever a new charge comes in, the city usually sees a spike in illegal dumping.

“The majority of the people do the right thing, but it’s those one or two people,” said Schweiger.

“We’re hoping that people really value their green spaces think twice about illegal dumping.”

It may be an even bigger problem because a lot of these products are untraceable.

In a normal bag of garbage there is usually some sort of evidence that leads back to the culprit.

A TV or refrigerator has very little to tie it back to the former owner.

Working for the city, Schweiger has no idea how e-waste is being handled in the communities.

“I’m assuming that the majority of it goes into the pits that they have, or into transfer stations or gets burned.”

And that’s not very good for the environment.

Contact Chris Oke at chriso@yukon-news.com