Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    New and better ways to dispose of electronics waste

    by  (c) 2003 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #703 April 15-21, 2003 High Tech Office  column

    Even though the pace of change has slowed, at home and at work many of us are on our third or fourth generation of personal computer. What happens to that hardware when the new (or at least newer) model shows up on your desk?

    In many organizations, older, less powerful systems are passed down an informal pecking order, eventually reaching the bottom. Eventually, systems get stashed away in closets or basements. Or they may be offered to staff, donated to schools or non-profits (contact Computers for Schools:, sold to a second-hand computer dealer like PC Galore or simply thrown in the dumpster.

    No matter what you plan to do with that old PC, make sure it no longer contains any of your data! Too often, this isn't being done and hard drives and complete systems are floating around filled with personal and business data. Recently, a pair of MIT grad students published the results of a study where they purchased 159 used drives from a variety of sources. They found more than half contained the previous owner's data, ranging from hospital information to corporate memos. One in four drives contained credit card numbers. One drive apparently came from an ATM machine.

    Formatting the hard drives on your surplus systems takes only a few minutes and will hide your data from casual snooping. Be aware that unformatting utilities can be used to make at least some of your data re-appear, though often in fragmentary form. A more secure - though more time consuming - method is to use software such as the WipeInfo program included with Symantec's Norton Utilities or Systemworks. It repeatedly overwrites the data area of your drives with a random pattern of zeros and ones.

    Hopefully, you'll keep your computers and other electronics gear out of the trash. These systems contain heavy metals like lead and cadmium that over time leach out and pollute the water table.

    But there's currently no standardized way to deal with electronics at the end of their life cycle. An estimated 50 per cent to 80 per cent of old systems are shipped to Asia, where they are stripped down to retrieve the metals. In the process of getting at tiny quantities of gold and copper, cables and circuit boards are burnt or treated with acid, damaging both workers' health and the environment. In the name of recycling, North Americans are exporting their waste.

    Better alternatives are appearing, however. Last July, HP Canada started to pick up all brands of computers, printers, scanners and the like from home and business users. These are evaluated for reuse and where possible, donated to Computers for Schools. If it is not reusable, the equipment goes to one of several North American facilities run by Noranda. A fee ranging from $20 to $52 covers costs and does not generate profit for HP ( In addition to facilities in California and Tennessee, this summer Noranda is opening a recycling plant in Brampton, Ontario with capacity to process a million pounds of electronic waste a month.

    The recently formed Electronics Product Stewardship Canada ( notes that Canadians disposed of 34,000 tons of 'information technology waste' in 1999, a figure expected to double by 2005. The industry association is pressuring for provincial and ultimately Canada-wide standards for disposal of computers and electronic items.

    They're hoping to be able to work with existing municipal recycling programs, with a disposal fee tacked onto the price of new electronics hardware going to cover costs.

    (If you are donating an older computer, please try to include the documentation for the operating system licensing. Without it, the recipient may be forced to purchase yet another copy of Windows.)

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan