A few days ago, I was skittering around the icy yard next to the Computers for Schools Yukon warehouse in Riverdale, counting pallets of computer waste, and running numbers through the calculator on my ever-present iPod Touch.
As the project manager for Computers for Schools Yukon, I was on a mission—a temporarily thwarted one.
This past week’s unseasonable thaw and freeze has put paid to any immediate plans of shipping more pallets south.
They are now thoroughly frozen into the ground, and any attempt to pull them up with a forklift is likely to end up with shattered wood and spilled computer parts.
Our best hope now is for warm weather in March so we can follow through on our obligations with the Yukon government.
The Yukon government’s Environment department has given the Computers for Schools project ,000 to help it deal with this pile of electronic waste, and the Department of Highways and Public Works has followed up with a further ,000.
With that money in place, we managed to ship out our first truckload of defunct computer equipment—23 pallets—at the end of October.
Just before Christmas, we finally got the recycling company’s invoice for the recycling fees for that shipment—a whopping ,861 for 304 computer monitors, 309 desktop computers, five small TVs, one large TV, and 4,090 kilograms of miscellaneous waste (mostly photocopiers and printers).
That, combined with the freight charge of about ,000, means that each truck load of e-waste Computers for Schools Yukon sends down to BC is going to cost around ,000.
Which means that Computers for Schools Yukon can ship, at most, three more truckloads—something like 69 to 75 more pallets—before it runs through YTG’s funding assistance.
Hence my half hour or so of pallet-counting and cost-calculating.
As the experience of loading that first truck showed us, it takes three workers one complete day of work to load each truck (one to operate the forklift, two to muscle the pallets around inside the container).
Palletizing and wrapping the equipment is also quite labour intensive.
In early October, Computers for Schools Yukon paid overtime wages to its two regular employees, and took on a couple of day-labourers for two Saturdays to accomplish that.
Some of those man hours involved in that effort have to be billed against the Yukon government’s funding, too, since it is not ethical to ask the small Computers for Schools budget to supply all the labour costs involved.
The good news I arrived at was that, with the ,000 or so I still have in hand, I can almost certainly ship three more truckloads of stuff, and have something like ,000 to ,000 I can put towards the labour costs.
I just need three reasonable weather days to do it.
The bad news I arrived at was that I have at least five truckloads of electronic waste already stacked and waiting for shipment, and, at my best guess, another two truckloads still lying unsorted and unstacked in the yard, for a total of seven pallets still needing shipment.
In other words, the money we currently have is about half of what we need to clean out the backlog.
This e-waste backlog was a dark cloud over my existence, last summer, when it became a matter of some public complaint and press attention.
The silver lining to that dark cloud was that the sheer unsightliness of that pile brought public and government attention to the previously unnoticed problem of e-waste management in the Yukon—or, more accurately, the lack of such management.
The Yukon government has commendably stepped up to the plate with financial assistance, and the people at Industry Canada (who are the funders of the Computers for Schools program) were very helpful and supportive, too.
They have given me some liberty to spend time on the problem—a problem which, though it is piled up on Computers for Schools Yukon’s warehouse yard, is not really a part of Computers for School’s mission.
(Computers for Schools is about getting used computers into the hands of needy and deserving learners, not about collecting and disposing of electronic junk.)
The Industry Canada people were also very helpful in giving me information about possible recycling operations I could deal with.
With most of the rubbish heap now sorted into more orderly, less-unsightly stacks, some of the heat and attention has abated.
But the problem, however temporarily mollified and winter-delayed, remains a serious one, and one whose call for attention is likely to arise again in the near future.
As I was doing my counts and calculations the other day, I started anticipating the cost of responding to that call, once again on my handy-dandy little iPod Touch’s calculator.
Taking what is admittedly a very wild guess, I estimate that the e-waste pallets I counted up a few days ago amount to, at best, 10 per cent of all the potential e-waste pallets currently sitting around in the Yukon.
For about ,000 in direct costs, we can get four truckloads out.
That means, assuming there are 80 truckloads of e-waste in the Yukon, it is going to cost 0,000 in direct costs to ship them.
Labour costs involved in accumulating, sorting, stacking and loading all this stuff are probably twenty times, not 10 times, what I have currently budgeted, because Computers for Schools Yukon is donating a lot of its own staff’s man hours to the effort.
That would make the labour cost something between ,000 to ,000.
Taking the high end figure, then, the Yukon currently has an e-waste problem that will cost about 0,000 to clean up, and then perhaps ,000 a year to keep it cleaned up.
Again, these numbers are pure figments of my iPod’s calculator, but they look reasonable enough, based on my experience so far.
What the numbers point to, however imprecisely, is a problem that is not trivial, but not financially overwhelming, either.
Surely, the Yukon’s government and private sectors can find a way to get rid of this mess for good and all.
At least, me and my iPod Touch think so.
Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.