good news from a heap of e trouble

A couple of weeks ago, I went through another of my intermittent periods of small-town media celebrity.

A couple of weeks ago, I went through another of my intermittent periods of small-town media celebrity.

I was on CBC TV’s Northbeat and CBC Radio’s morning show, talking about the progress being made in dealing with the electronic waste situation at the warehouse of the Computers for Schools program.

For those of you who were spared my appearances on those shows, I thought I would follow them up we a recap and update in these pages.

To state the problem briefly: Computers for Schools is a computer-refurbishment and distribution program funded by Industry Canada, and locally operated by the Yukon Entrepreneurship Centre Society, for whom I work as part-time executive director.

This program has a certain “recycling” component, insofar as it involves ramping up donated computers so that they can be usefully given out to eligible educational and non-profit organizations, but it is emphatically not about processing the Yukon’s defunct electronic equipment in general.

The Computers for Schools program in Whitehorse currently consists of one warehouse (donated by the Yukon’s department of Education), staffed by one full-time, permanent employee, one full-time, term trainee and one extremely part time executive director (me).

It does not have the budget, the staff, the space or the training to be an electronic waste recycling facility.

That we ended up being perceived as that kind of facility is an unfortunate, unintended result of a public service effort a couple of summers ago, when the Computers for Schools staff showed up at the city landfill on a special dangerous waste management day to take people’s electronic waste.

This was a mistake that happened before my time, but I am not going to be wiser-than-thou about it.

On the face of it, it looked like a pretty sensible thing to do — help the public with it’s old electronics, while collecting some computer equipment that could be useful in the Computers for Schools effort to scale up and recycle computers for education efforts in the Yukon.

No one at the time could have seen what was coming: a concatenation of events that would lead to a large, unsightly, expensive waste heap outside the Computers for Schools warehouse door.

That heap, with which we have been struggling for the past year or so, was the product of three factors: the moving of Computers for School’s warehouse to a more visible, accessible location behind the Education Building on Lewis Boulevard; the precipitous drop in the price of new computers; and the related drop in the price of LCD monitors.

The move to the more visible, accessible space, combined with the publicity arising from our Earth Day activity, meant that the public was more aware of our recycling role, and found us easier to find and get to — hence, rapid increase in “donations,” most of which were actually unusable computers and therefore e-waste.

The rapid drop in computer prices — and the concomitant move of so many private and public computer users from desktop to laptop computers — meant that both the public and private sectors were ready to offload equipment that, in earlier, more expensive times, they might have made an effort to keep in service.

Finally, the advent of the affordable LCD monitor was perhaps the most dramatic and problematic of these developments. It meant the sudden appearance of a veritable heap of bulky, heavy, expensive-to-ship CRT monitors, all in a very short time.

It was a problem that accumulated more quickly than the tiny Computers for Schools organization could move to find resources to deal with it.

Indeed, most of my time as the part-time executive director, in the past six months or so, has been devoted to working up the ways and means of dealing with that heap of trouble.

The good news is that the Yukon government is stepping up to the plate with support for the short-term solution of stacking and shipping the existing e-waste pile.

We have an signed agreement with the department of Environment, and a pending agreement with the department of Highways and Public Works to help us move at least a significant portion of that waste.

The first truckload, in fact, went out on the last day of October, and we are now waiting to see what the total shipment and recycling cost of that shipment will come to, so that we can gage just how many more truckloads we can afford to ship with the money we have.

The bad news is that we did not beat the season-ending snowfall, so any further shipments are likely to be more difficult to arrange and engineer until the spring, though we are certainly going to try.

The other bad news is that, until we can have some certainty about how well and how soon we can deal with our existing e-waste stockpile, we have to call a halt to taking in any more of the stuff.

To end on a good-news note, though, I can say that the entrepreneurship centre has already had some very productive conversations with various government and private-sector agencies in the past two months or so.

We are looking to develop a rational, affordable e-waste management system that will help the public and private sectors get rid of their dead electronic backlog, while allowing poor little Computers for Schools to get back to its real mission — getting refurbished computers into the hands of people and organizations who need them.

How long that will take remains to be seen, and what it will ultimately look like is at present very unclear. But at least the talking has started.

Ugly and unpopular as it was, that heap of dead electronics at the Computers for Schools warehouse may end up generating some public good, after all.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.