How to dispose of e-waste
Australia is a technological society in love with gadgets. We buy at least 2.5 million new computers every year and more than 1 million TV sets. While these provide many benefits, such a high level of consumption eventually leads to a large quantity of electronic waste, known as e-waste. The United Nations has estimated that between 20 and 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated worldwide every year. Unwanted computers, monitors, televisions, keyboards, printers and games consoles are all proliferating.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, e-waste is growing about three times faster than the rest of our waste stream. As the quantity increases, the problem becomes harder to ignore. Technological change, planned obsolescence, falling prices and changing fashions are all contributing to an accelerating replacement rate.
Whereas 10 years ago, a typical computer would be replaced every four to five years, this lifespan has now dropped considerably to about two years. Exponential growth in computing power among state-of-the-art machines leads to the development of memory-hungry features that will slow an older unit, often leading to its replacement.
The toxic trade
In addition to its sheer volume, the second major issue associated with e-waste is its toxicity. The range of chemicals used includes lead (the solders in circuit boards), cadmium (in batteries), mercury (in switches) and brominated flame retardants (in plastics.) The glass used in TVs and older-style cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors and TVs contains up to 20 per cent lead. Other harmful trace elements include arsenic, antimony, beryllium, cobalt and chromium.
Traditionally, the normal disposal avenue for e-waste was landfill, but there has been steadily rising concern about the risk of toxic chemicals leaching out and contaminating groundwater. Incineration, practised in some countries, including the US, is even worse, producing toxic ash, dioxins and heavy metal emissions. Recycling would appear to be the solution, but even there some practices are causing major environmental headaches.
Strict regulation of e-waste recycling practices in developed countries has considerably pushed up recycling costs, creating an economic incentive to send the waste overseas to developing countries where there are often no controls on burning, disassembly and disposal. Such destinations include India, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria.
Most treatment of electronic waste in developing countries is a real-life horror story perpetuated by poverty and government inaction. Computer wire is burnt to access valuable copper, and circuit boards are melted in pots to extract the lead: dioxins and other carcinogens are released in the process. Riverbank acid baths are used to treat the boards for removing gold, while CRT monitors have no recycling value and are simply dumped.
In Ghana, a country with no e-waste laws, eyewitnesses have observed computer parts being burnt in a waste dump next to the Agbogbloshie Market near Accra, sending a toxic plume into a neighbouring playing field administered by the Ministry of Sport. Nearby, acres of computers are stacked up in piles. The ground is poisoned, but goats feed on the waste and children play, oblivious of the danger.
These problems reached a wider audience in 2002, with the release of the film Exporting Harm, produced by the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. This focused on the Chinese town of Guiyu, where primitive e-waste recycling has left high levels of dioxins, flame retardants and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the surrounding environment. Drinking water is now transported from 30km away.
In 2000, e-waste processing became illegal in China, leading to a reduction in volumes entering the country. Unfortunately, like water flowing around an obstruction, this waste has simply gone elsewhere instead and there has been no net reduction in the world e-waste trade. The best solution is to block the supply by regulating waste practices in the exporting countries.
International trade in hazardous waste (including e-waste) is controlled under the Basel Convention, which came into force in 1992. However, it contains some loopholes that have not been closed. The Conventionâ€™s Annex IX exempts waste that is ostensibly being transported as a secondhand product. Much of todayâ€™s e-waste trade is disguised as shipments of secondhand equipment, creating a grey area and making the problem harder to tackle. In Ghana, only 10 per cent of the secondhand computers entering the country are functional.
For the US, these e-waste export issues do not apply because it never ratified the Basel Convention. According to Barbara Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, the US Environmental Protection Agency has created a set of loopholes that together exempt all e-waste from the countryâ€™s definition of hazardous waste. It has been estimated that about 50â€“80 per cent of the e-waste collected in the US is shipped to developing countries.
After months of observation, last June, Greenpeace activists intercepted a container of e-waste in Hong Kong. This had originated from Oakland in California and the group believed it was destined for the Sanshui district of China.
Advanced recycling practices
Fortunately, recycling practices in industrialised countries are far more sophisticated. Electronic items are made from a large number of diverse materials and cannot be properly recycled without special processing facilities. The key to making it cost-effective is to reduce the need for manual labour through automation. Machines will typically separate components, screen them and then granulate them. Dust is prevented from escaping via a special collection system. About 95 per cent of e-waste materials can be successfully recycled.
The economic viability of this process is enhanced by the opportunity to recover quantities of several precious metals, including gold, silver, platinum and palladium. Also used in mobile phones and other electronic devices are copper, nickel and the mineral columbite-tantalite, known as coltan. Most of the worldâ€™s coltan supply is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the trade is fuelling civil war and mining activities are threatening gorilla habitat. In this instance, recycling of old equipment plays an important role by curbing the need for further mining.
At present itâ€™s common for e-waste recycling companies to charge a fee per item, creating an obvious disincentive for people who want to do the right thing and ultimately becoming a contributor to global e-waste volumes. However, effective solutions to this difficulty have been implemented in some parts of the world.
Globally, the responsible recycling of electronics is stuck at a relatively low level except in those countries that have adopted product stewardship policies (also known as Extended Producer Responsibility.) Product stewardship requires manufacturers to take back their electronic items at the end of life for the reuse or recycling of components. Of these two options, reuse is often more cost-effective and companies working under such a system inevitably start to manufacture their products with one eye on ease of disassembly and reuse of parts.
Environmental benefits associated with this policy include landfill bans for e-waste and a reduction in demand for virgin materials with their associated energy costs, water appetites and ecological damage. From a societal perspective, this â€œinternalisesâ€ the costs of disposal by keeping them with the producer, as opposed to â€œexternalisingâ€ them by passing them on to the taxpayer.
One early product stewardship pioneer was Switzerland. Back in 1991, it launched its own e-waste collection system, which has evolved to a stage where a large range of electronic products can be returned to the place of purchase or other collection points.
Similar schemes are now operational in the EU, Japan, South Korea, Canada and several US states. In both Canada and California, electronics recycling fees are added to the retail price of items such as televisions, computers and monitors. The EUâ€™s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive was introduced a few years ago and has since been adopted by all member countries. As most electronic items imported into the EU are made in Asia, WEEE has influenced manufacturing practices at a global scale.
Another consequence of product stewardship is that the cost of dealing with toxic components in returned equipment has created an incentive towards cleaner production. The WEEE Directive works hand in hand with the EUâ€™s hazardous substances RoHS Directive that encourages low-toxicity practices. Solutions include lead-free solder and avoiding the need for flame retardants through intelligent product design.
Several companies have already made some progress in this area and in the past couple of years Greenpeace created an added impetus for action by ranking electronics companies according to environmental performance, focusing on the three key areas of toxics, recycling, and energy policies and practices. Voluntary take-back schemes have been implemented by Sony, Samsung and Nokia, which currently heads the table.
Are such schemes a major financial burden on industry? Ian Burks, chairman of the Australian Information Industry Association, disagrees and instead holds the opinion that introducing green practices into the computer industry is one way to save money.
Australia lags behind
So far, Australia has been very slow to take decisive action on e-waste. There are no landfill bans and product stewardship is off the table. Much of the recycling that takes place comes down the efforts of councils that are prepared to subsidise collection costs. If you live in Australia and are unhappy about this absence of leadership, you may want to convey your views to the Environment Minister, Peter Garrett. Concerned New Zealand residents should contact the office of Nick Smith.
While the Australian Federal Government has effectively offloaded responsibility for e-waste onto the states as a waste issue, environment groups strongly favour a national system and believe that individual state-level schemes are likely to lack coherence. However, South Australia took a stand last November when it announced plans to introduce its own product stewardship scheme and landfill ban if no national initiative is forthcoming soon. In New South Wales, a number of councils, including the City of Sydney, are calling on the state government to take similar action.
Essentially, the problem in Australia seems to be a laissez-faire government culture favouring industry self-regulation in place of the rules that governments seem able to enforce elsewhere in the world. Regulatory frameworks engender business confidence and a firm basis from which to plan for the future, whereas regulatory vacuums create uncertainty and a shakier investment climate.
In a remarkable reversal of expected roles, the electronics industry coalition Product Stewardship Australia (PSA) has started lobbying the government to introduce stewardship laws. Currently its main focus is TV recycling; in Australia alone, an estimated 2 million TV sets went to landfill last year. PSA states on its website: â€œAt a time when governments and policy makers around the world have acted decisively on electronic waste, the Australian Government remains indifferent and remarkably slow to act.â€
As a signatory to the Basel Convention, Australia is prohibited from exporting hazardous wastes unless it is demonstrated that they will be recycled in an environmentally responsible manner by the receiving country. While the government has set up a voluntary code to distinguish between secondhand equipment and e-waste, the interpretation of what is hazardous and what is not can become fairly complex, leading to grey areas.
Do the right thing
If you are an average person, itâ€™s likely you will have one or more out-of-service electronic items gathering dust in the garage. In Australia alone, one estimate suggests we are sitting on 9 million unused computers, 5 million printers and 2 million scanners.
Eventually something will have to be done with this growing heap of techno-trash, but if you are reluctant to dump yours in the garbage, here are some suggestions for computer equipment:
The nationwide industry-run Mobile Muster program has a list of drop-off locations on its website, while the Mobile Phone Recycling site with its freepost satchels may be more suited to people in remote rural locations. Mobile Muster also accepts mobile phone batteries.
Some of these contain toxic chemicals and need to be disposed of carefully. Although the most economical solution is to buy rechargeables, even standard throw-away alkaline batteries can be recharged a few times using specialist rechargers such as the ReZAP.
Surprisingly, Australia still has no national recycling program for the single-use variety. Dead batteries are collected at the Battery World chain and rechargeables can also be dropped off under the Batteryback program (1800 353 233) operating only in the Melbourne area.
These can have their lives greatly extended by printing most material on the most economical setting, and when empty they can usually be refilled by a cartridge specialist, a cheaper option than buying new. Waste cartridges are collected by Cartridges 4 Planet Ark for remanufacturing, recovery of components or recycling. Collection points are found in a number of retail outlets around the country.
Tackling e-waste in New Zealand
Unfortunately, e-waste recycling policies in New Zealand are at a similar backward stage to those of Australia. However, proactive individuals can make a difference by passing computer equipment to organisations and businesses such as RCN, The Ark or Remarkit for refurbishment or recycling.
Another encouraging initiative is eDay, an annual community e-waste collection event that began in 2006 in Wellington and has grown every year, spreading to 30 centres around the country. As New Zealand has limited e-waste recycling facilities, all the non-functional equipment is exported to South Korea with a Basel permit for processing.
e-Waste Guide (international overview)www.ewasteguide.info
Greenpeace electronics companies ranked
Planet Ark Recycling Near You
Mobile Phone Recycling
Cartridges 4 Planet Ark
Product Stewardship Australia
Remarkit Solutions Limited
RCN Remarketing and E Waste Specialists
The Ark Computers
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW.)