It Technology Essay, Research Paper
A quote from a PC World magazine on “The Digital Future” said, “in the future,
people will live twice as long, computers will die twice as fast” 1. As computer technology
continues to accelerate at an unprecedented rate, information technology (IT) equipment
waste is becoming an increasingly significant portion of the solid waste stream.
Information Technology equipment waste is receiving increased attention for the
? Rapid advances in technology result in IT equipment becoming obsolete at an
increasingly rapid pace. This is resulting in an increase in the rate and quantity of IT
equipment entering the waste stream;
? A piece of IT equipment was, or is typically of high value, both in terms of its
component parts and the equipment itself;
? IT equipment commonly contains toxic materials, which are hazardous if not
This project provides a broad overview of how such products are
handled and to estimate the amounts of these products and materials that will enter the
waste stream in the next few years.
The specific waste streams addressed include:
? personal computers,
? laptop computers,
? peripherals (e.g., printers, scanners),
2.0 WASTE ESTIMATES FOR IT EQUIPMENT
This section will address the generation and flow of computer equipment waste
from both residential and IC&I sources in Canada. The types of computer equipment
addressed in this project and discussed in this section include:
- Computers (personal computers, servers);
- Laptop computers;
- Note-pads/note-books, and;
- Peripherals (scanners, modems, keyboards etc.).
The flow of computer equipment in the solid waste stream will require increasing
attention in the future for the following reasons:
- The decreasing lifespan of IT products and their increasing annual sales,
resulting in greater discards of computer equipment waste on an annual basis;
- The mixed composition of computer equipment (i.e., metals, plastics, glass),
which makes dismantling and recycling challenging;
- The presence of hazardous materials; and,
- The life cycle ecological burden represented by waste IT equipment.
Computer equipment can become obsolete as a result of technological
advancements, for example:
- Increasing micro processing speed – from 80386 to 80486 to Pentium I, II and
now III generation systems;
- Increasing memory capacity to support faster microprocessors and expanded
- Internet developments that cannot be accessed using older systems;
- New and expanding operating systems and software that cannot run on older
- Advancements in color, resolution and technology for monitors (i.e., flat panel
- Increasing speed and color performance for laser and ink-jet printers, and
- Merging technologies such as “all-in-one” equipment, with faxing, printing and
scanning capabilities provided in one unit.
These factors have reduced both the average first life and total lifespan of
computer equipment – where first life refers to the amount of time a product is useful to
its original owner and total lifespan is the period from manufacture to disposal 2.
Computer equipment sales are projected to continue to grow as a result of
decreasing lifespan and the increased use of computers in businesses, institutions and
The largest growth in computer sales is into the residential market. In 1998 there
were 1.9 million computers installed in Canadian homes and in 2000, there were 2.2
million – an increase of 16%. In the education sector, installed computers increased by
9% in 1999, to 1.4 million. Installed computers in the business sector increased from 6.2
million in 1999 to 7.0 million in 2000 – an increase of 13% 3.
Figure 2-1 presents a simplified schematic of the lifespan of computer equipment
from point of sale, through use, to end of first life, to diversion (reuse and recycling) and
3.0 IT Waste Generation
Each year millions of new computers, monitors, laptops and peripherals are sold
into the Canadian marketplace. Some of these sales represent ‘new’
customers(Businesses, Institutions, Homes, Government offices) who are purchasing
computer equipment for the first time, while the majority are those that are replacing old
or out dated equipment found in residential, commercial and institutional settings. The
obsolete equipment is typically 3-5 years old 4 and, while often still usable (i.e., not
broken), it no longer meets the needs of the user. The point at which a computer
becomes obsolete is also referred to as the end of the equipment’s first life.
Obsolete computer equipment will be directed to one of four destinations/outlets:
1) Storage, 2) Reuse, 3) Recycling, 4) Disposal. (as shown in figure below)
In many instances, discarded computer equipment is placed in storage. For
residential computers this may mean storage in basements, or for business computers
this may mean placement in storage or warehousing areas. In many cases IT
equipment is stored largely because the owner hopes that the out-dated equipment has
some potential resale value, or that they may use it in the future. In other cases,
equipment is stored simply because people do not know what to do with it and are
resistant to throwing out a piece of equipment that may have cost them thousands of
dollars a few years ago. Accurate quantification of the number of computers being
stored is not available, but estimates range from 45% to 50% of obsolete computers 5.
Eventually, stored computers will end up being disposed.
End of first-life computer equipment typically goes to one of two reuse
applications: 1) resold as used equipment, or 2) donated to a charity organization.
Retail outlets, both traditional and Internet-based are increasingly becoming avenues for
the sale of used computer equipment. IT manufacturers are also getting into the
business of selling used equipment.
Used IT equipment that retains some useful value will likely be resold into the
secondary computer market under the following scenarios:
- When businesses sell or auction IT equipment into the secondary market for
resale through retail outlets as used computers or for computer parts and
components (e.g., hard drives, motors/fans, CPU’s etc.), and
- End-of-lease IT equipment that is returned to the leasing company at the end of
a two or three year lease is typically sold or auctioned by the leasing company
to secondary computer companies and brokers.
A smaller percentage of used business IT equipment is often sold to employees
for personal use. With the rapid development of computer technology, this option is
diminishing. Computer equipment and dismantled components can be reused and resold
through a variety of outlets, including:
- Cascading or informal distribution of a computer within a company or within a
- Through private resale companies that purchase used equipment in order to
refurbish and resell computer equipment for a profit in local or foreign markets;
- The sale of component parts that have been dismantled by primary recyclers;
- The redistribution of donated equipment (nationally or internationally) through
nonprofit organizations, sometimes in partnership with other companies that can
The recycling infrastructure for computer equipment includes a mix of
primary and secondary recyclers and metal smelting facilities. Typically, primary
recyclers refurbish equipment for resale where possible and dismantle and sort the
remaining equipment into component parts, such as circuit boards, CRT’s (cathode ray
tubes), plastic housing and wires. Sorted materials are then sold to secondary
recyclers or smelters for further processing, or are sent to disposal outlets. Primary
recyclers rely mainly on manual labor for refurbishing and dismantling, although some
mechanical and automated systems are now available.
Secondary recyclers process metals, plastics and glass contained in the IT
equipment to recover raw materials. These recyclers generally use highly automated
processing equipment, requiring minimal manual disassembly.
Electronic and computer waste can also be processed at smelting facilities to
recover precious metals. The pyrometallurgical process utilized at a smelting facility
involves the melting and fusing of ores to separate metallic constituents, such as lead or
Smelters can also use the leaded glass contained in CRTs as a fluxing agent in
the production of pure lead 7. Noranda’s Horne facility in northwestern Quebec is the
largest North American copper and precious metal smelter 6.
CRTs require special processing because they can contain from 0.7 to 2.7 kg of
lead depending on the monitor size and year of manufacture. Monitors that can not be
refurbished can be recycled into new CRTs or used as fluxing agents by a secondary
lead smelter. To reuse an old CRT in the manufacture of a new CRT, the face glass is
separated from the neck and funnel glass and the frit bonding compound by sawing the
CRT at the frit bonding compound. If the CRT glass is to be used as a fluxing agent it
does not require separation. The glass can be recovered in this process as well 7.
IT equipment as a whole or as its dismantled component parts can be
disposed in landfills or incinerators. At this time, there is limited information available
on the percentage of the waste stream that is made up of IT equipment. A 1999 waste
composition study in the City of Calgary found that electronic equipment (including
computers, radios, televisions etc.) comprised 1.2% of the residential waste stream or
3,000 tons per year 8. This is comparable to US solid waste data that shows that
electronic waste comprises 1-2% of the solid waste stream 9. Equivalent information is
not available for IC&I waste at this time but could form the focus of future studies.
The projected trend of estimated quantities of Information technology waste disposed
from 1999 to 2005 is given below :
Projections for the flow of IT equipment and storage patterns can be further refined
as more recovery information becomes available regarding quantities of computer
equipment that are reused and recycled in Canada.
The waste flow estimates for various pieces of computer equipment are presented in the following tables:
- Table 2-2– Personal Computers
- Table 2-3– Monitors
- Table 2-4– Laptop Computers
- Table 2-5– Peripherals
Based on the Waste Flow Tool, it is estimated that in 2000, approximately 33,972
tons of IT equipment waste (including PCs monitors, laptops and peripherals) was
disposed, 15,592 tons was recycled, 24,507 tons was sent for reuse and 6,128 was
put into storage. Some pieces of IT equipment which had been stored or reused in
previous years entered the waste stream in 2000. Of the IT waste disposed, PCs and
servers accounted for an estimated 10,833 tons, monitors accounted for an estimated
10,688 tons, peripherals (scanners, printers, etc) accounted for about 11,474 tons and
laptops accounted for about 977 tons. In 2005, the Waste Flow Tools predict that
approximately 67,324 tons of IT equipment waste (including PCs monitors, laptops and
peripherals, but excluding mainframes and other large equipment) will be disposed,
47,791 tons will be reused, 11,948 tons will be stored and 43,428 tons will be recycled.
Of the total IT waste that will be disposed, PCs and servers will account for an estimated
23,349 tons, monitors will account for an estimated 24,472 tons, peripherals (scanners,
printers, etc) will account for about 17,396 tons and laptops will account for about 2,107
The quantities disposed, recycled, stored and reused do not add to the amount of
IT equipment that became obsolete in 2000 because a portion of IT equipment from
storage and reuse from earlier years enters the IT equipment waste flow in 2000.
4.0 Materials Contained in IT Equipment
The challenge encountered in diverting computers and peripherals from the
waste stream through recycling and refurbishing activity result from the diversity of
products and variety of materials contained in each product. For example, each hard
drive contains a range of metals and plastics that can be difficult to separate. It is also
difficult to identify the different plastics contained in each piece of equipment by resin
The composition of personal computers and monitors are given in the Table 2 – 7
and the chart below:
? Precious metals include nickel, manganese, cobalt, barium, tin,
silver, antimony, chromium, cadmium, selenium, mercury, gold and
Many of the materials contained in IT equipment can be potentially hazardous if
improperly managed. For example, printed circuit boards contain heavy metals such as
antimony, silver, chromium, zinc, lead, tin and copper and a CRT in a computer monitor
can contain from 0.7 to 2.7 kg of lead depending on the monitor’s size and year of
The production of semiconductors, printed circuit boards, disk drives and
monitors use a number of hazardous materials 11. The lead oxide used in the cathode
ray tubes (CRT) of computer monitors is of particular concern and it has been estimated
that computer monitors represent approximately 15% of the lead found in the municipal
waste stream 12.
Hazardous materials found in obsolete computer equipment can be released to
the environment through the following pathways:
- Incineration of computer equipment concentrates heavy metals in ash residue;
- Landfill disposal of computer equipment, and;
- Recycling and recovery of computer equipment waste.
The estimated quantities of materials contained in disposed PC’s and monitors in
Canada in 1999 and in 2005 are shown in table and chart below:
The hazardous materials contained in computer equipment that are of greatest
concern are summarized below.
Lead is found in the CRT, in the soldering of printed circuit boards and in other
components of IT equipment. Lead represents approximately 6.3%, by weight of an
average PC 13. Based on the total number of obsolete PC’s and monitors in Canada in
2000, this translates to about 1,356 tons of lead disposed in 2000.
Based on the prediction that 47,821 tons of PCs and monitors will be disposed
in 2005 and assuming that the average composition of this equipment will not change
significantly by that year, 3,012 tons of lead will be disposed with this stream in 2005.
A CRT in a computer monitor can contain from 0.7 to 2.7 kg of lead depending on the
monitors size and year of manufacture. This lead is contained in various components of
the CRT, including: 14
? The glass funnel, which is glass that is 22-25% lead (bound into the glass). Lead
is used in the funnel to shield users from radiation produced by the electron gun.
? The faceplate, which contains 2-3% lead bound into the glass.
? The frit (a glass solder that joins the faceplate and funnel components of the
CRT), which contains 15 to 100 grams per CRT.
The lead contained in the frit is of greater concern because it is in a soluble form
(primarily lead oxide) that can leach 15, while the lead contained in the glass funnel and
in the faceplate is in an insoluble form.
Cadmium is present in certain components, including chip resistors, infrared
detectors, semiconductors, older CRTs and is sometimes present in plastics as a
stabilizer. Cadmium represents approximately 0.009% of a PC by weight 16. Based on
the total number of disposed PC’s in Canada in 2000, this translates to 2.0 tons of
Based on the prediction that 47,821 tones of PCs and monitors will be disposed
in 2005 and assuming that the average composition of this equipment will not change
significantly by that year, 4.5 tons of cadmium will be disposed with this stream in 2005.
Mercury is used in printed circuit boards, batteries, switches and printed wiring
boards. While the percentage found in the average PC is only 0.002%, 17 based on the
total number of disposed PCs estimated in Canada in 2000, this represents 0.5 tons of
mercury. Mercury is also found in the fluorescent lamps that were previously used to
backlight laptop computer screens, but have now been replaced with xenon.