The amount of hazardous electronic waste is piling up and becoming more and more difficult to handle.
Last May, during Whitehorse’s Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day, a five-ton truck had to make four trips to empty all of the discarded computers, stereos, TVs and VCRs.
Another half-ton truck, filled with goods that staff deemed could be saved and used again, was filled twice.
More electronic waste was received on that one day than during all of last year.
“Seventy per cent of Yukon households have a computer,” said Joel Witten, executive director of the Yukon Entrepreneurship Centre, which handles all the territory’s electronic waste.
“Products are getting cheaper and the interval between new products is getting shorter.”
This results in a huge amount of waste when households discard their old electronics.
Why is that a big deal?
Computers and other electronic devices contain lead, mercury and cadmium, as well as many other toxic non-biodegradable materials.
In the Yukon, all toxic electronic waste is managed by a small non-profit organization.
The Entrepreneurship Centre’s Computers for Schools program collects old computers, TVs and cellphones, fixes them and donates them to worthy causes throughout the territory, such as Yukon Learn and the Yukon Council on Disability.
Any nonprofit organization can make an application.
In a few weeks, Computers for Schools will donate 100 computers to Ray Brosseuk of Partners for Others.
The machines will be distributed to needy communities throughout Africa.
This work makes the Entrepreneurship Centre the territory’s electronic-waste collectors by default.
“We can do it, but we need the proper support,” said Witten.
“All our staff do both: repair the electronics and handle the waste. Lately, we’ve been spending the majority of our time dealing with waste.”
Computers for Schools usually operates with two to five people, depending on funding.
“We’re at the mercy of the funding cycle,” said Witten.
“The grants are really hit and miss.”
As a nationwide program, Computers for Schools receives the bulk of its funding from Industry Canada and has to reapply each year.
But the funding is inconsistent and Witten is concerned about how political changes in Ottawa will affect the program.
As far as territorial funding goes, the situation is no more certain.
In 2004, three grants were awarded totaling $39,800.
In 2005, the organization received one, for $9,366.
And in 2006, the amount rose to $14,000 through two grants.
“The grants are different year to year and based on application,” said Shannon Jensen, manager of standards and approvals for Environment Yukon, explaining the inconsistency.
“The available money is not increasing, and more people are becoming aware that they can receive grants so there’s not as much to go around.”
Environment Yukon has no long-term plans for electronic waste management.
Neither does Whitehorse.
“The program has worked well, so we haven’t looked at any alternatives,” said Jen Turner, the city’s environment co-ordinator.
It organizes three hazardous-waste collection days, and Computers for Schools handles the waste.
It stores the junk in a warehouse — donated by the Yukon government — before shipping it down south to be disposed of properly.
“I think the government is doing its best, but there just hasn’t been the appropriate long-term thinking,” said Witten.
“Where is the responsibility in the long run?”
He recommends that the territory deal with the growing problem by creating a waste-disposal tax on all electronics sold in the territory.
“It’s like the tire tax and the oil-change disposal fee,” explains Witten.
“You just add an extra $20 or so to every computer and stereo you purchase. That way the consumer pays for it and it doesn’t burden the government.”
Similar programs are achieving success throughout Canada, he said.
“It’s the same problem everywhere; it’s just that others are more organized.
For now, Computers for Schools will have to continue applying for grants in its attempt to cover the Yukon.
But without the steady funding, the job is difficult, said Witten.
“We’re just a little shoestring not-for-profit, doing our best to keep this stuff out of the dump.”
The next Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day will be held in August.