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Your two-year mobile phone contract is up, so you renew and score the latest smart phone gratis (well, as free as signing up for a further 24 months). The analog television signal is about to go the way of the gods, so you swap your old CRT for a fancy new digital LCD flat screen. And your laptop is just too slow – so you upgrade. Sound familiar?
Tech-savvy Australians are some of the highest adopters of new electronics in the world. According to Ecorecycle Victoria, we buy more than 2.4 million PCs and more than one million televisions each year. Just over 34,000 mobile phones were sold every day in 2010 – that’s a staggering 12 million units annually.
Product lifecycles are shrinking, but there’s no simple reason why. Some commentators point the finger at the speed of technological development, while others blame our relentless desire for new features, whether we need them or not. Also at play is simple economics – the cost of new electronic goods has dropped substantially in recent years.
“The rapid rate at which we’ve acquired consumer electronics over the past 30 years is a result of real technological advances – think of all the electronics products that simply didn’t exist 10 years ago (smart phones, tablet computers like iPads, touch screen MP3 players) – and our marketing-driven perceptions of these products’ utility and desirability,” says Elizabeth Grossman, author of ‘High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics and Human Health’.
For every new acquisition there’s a casualty. So what becomes of your recently redundant electronic goods? As shown by the computer monitors and CRTs littering our nature strips before hard rubbish collections, most end up in landfill. This figure is estimated to be as high as 75 per cent.
Globally, Greenpeace says e-waste makes up five per cent of all municipal solid waste – nearly the same amount as plastic packaging. It’s estimated to be growing at more than three times the rate of general municipal waste.
When e-waste is sent to landfill, poisonous substances – including heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic – can leach from decomposing goods and into the environment. Clean Up Australia reports that these nasties can seep into groundwater, contaminate the soil and subsequently enter the food chain – which is bad news for our health and that of the environment.
The remaining portion lies dormant in garages and garden sheds or, if we’re lucky, makes its way to recycling
depots (about 10 per cent of computers and televisions). However, complicated manufacturing processes mean that electronics can be time consuming as well as labour intensive to disassemble, and therefore much more expensive to recycle than household plastic, glass and paper.
Over the seas
As a solution to the high cost, some developed countries, including Australia, export their e-waste to developing nations in Asia and Africa so them to deal with.
“I’ve had many, many calls from people asking to buy e-waste that we get so they can export it offshore,”
says Graham Muir, national manager at Sims Recycling Solutions. “People are trying to offload it to countries who can’t deal with it the way we can.”
The Federal Government recently launched an investigation into the alleged exportation of e-waste from Australia to Ghana over a period spanning eight years. A report aired on SBS’s Dateline revealed 500 containers of broken televisions and computers are shipped to the African country each month, causing grave health and environmental problems. This is contrary to our ratification of the 1992 Basel Convention, a global treaty on hazardous waste treatment.
On October 21 last year, 178 nations signed onto the Basel Ban Amendment, which makes it illegal to ship hazardous waste from OECD to non-OECD countries. “Presumably, this ban on exports will compel the development of local facilities to process used and obsolete electronics and help curb the dumping of used electronics,” Grossman says.
“Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and India had previously opposed this ban but have now dropped their opposition. It’s notable, however, that the US – a major exporter of e-waste – is not a party to the Convention.”
Reuse and recycle
So where do we go from here? Most experts believe the solution to the problem of e-waste is one of lifecycle
– we can either extend the lifespan of electronic goods or, more likely, complete the lifecycle with improved
recycling facilities. With industry and consumer demand for the latest electronics showing no sign of abating,
the latter is seen as the way forward.
“The majority of materials found in obsolete televisions and computer equipment can be recycled and utilised
in the manufacture of new products and components,” says John Gertsakis, senior sustainability associate at WSP Environment and Energy.
He says the options for recycling e-waste vary between states and local councils – some offer the service in
varying capacities while others have no recycling facilities. The Byteback program in Victoria and the Zero Waste SA initiative in South Australia accept end-of-life computers and televisions, while Mobile Muster takes old mobile phones for recycling via the post or at drop-off centres around the nation.
Return to sender
In Australia, the great big shining light on the horizon for recycling e-waste is the National Television and Computer Product Stewardship Scheme, which will begin in mid-2012 and be rolled out nationally over five years. The scheme requires any company that manufactures and/or imports TVs and computers to pay for end-of-life recycling of these products.
Free industry-managed collection points will be set up around the country, and a small fee may be incorporated into the price of new electronic goods to cover the future cost of collection and recycling. The scheme aims to lift recycling rates from 10 per cent to 80 per cent in its first 10 years of operation.
“The regulations represent a landmark policy reform by the Australian Government and will help to ensure that more and more e-waste is diverted from landfill, and that otherwise valuable materials are recovered, reprocessed and used as inputs for the manufacture of new products,” Gertsakis says.
Product stewardship schemes in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China – where landfill comes at a premium –
have achieved success, in particular in gadget-loving Japan, where 55 per cent of television monitors are now recycled.
It’s hoped our nation of enthusiastic recyclers can achieve similar results. We’re game if you are!
What to do with your e-waste
First, establish whether your product can be repaired or refurbished to lengthen its life – try to resist the urge to upgrade to the latest iPhone.
If it’s broken beyond repair, check with your local council about e-waste recycling services. Ask about the process to ensure your electronics aren’t about to make an illegal journey to Asia or Africa.
If recycling e-waste is tricky in your local area, store your electronics until the national recycling scheme begins in mid-2012.