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Electronic waste: forgotten, but not gone

Electronic waste: forgotten, but not gone
Photo: Alex Proimos/Wikimedia Commons

Remember the technology of the 90’s?

You probably had about 4 TV channels on a giant CRT television set. VHS was the best version of on-demand entertainment we had. The computer you were using had a dial-up modem, a CD-ROM drive you actually used, and if you were lucky and willing enough, a DVD burner.

The computer mouse had a ball and you got a sense of satisfaction cleaning the contact points regularly with the tip of a cotton bud. The computer monitor, running Windows 98, took up most of the desk and was lucky to have any of the colours calibrated properly.

It’s a time reduced to just a flicker of memories and nostalgia, propped up by the marvel of endless technological advancement.

So what did you do with that old TV set? Or the laptop that stopped working? Or the computer keyboard filled with so much dust and food crumbs, the keys no longer worked?

Did it end up in a wheelie bin, out of sight, out of mind?

About 50 old white computer keyboards stacked on top of each other and a computer moused and a few cords hanging over the front of the stack. A slight vignette has been added to the photo.
Do you know where your old computers are now? Photo: Zinneke/Wikimedia Commons

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is a staggering problem as a global consumer culture and planned obsolescence in new technologies sees millions of tonnes of old electronics tossed every year.

17 million televisions and 37 million computers were sent to landfill up to 2008, with less than 10 per cent making their way into the recycling stream. This is despite the fact up to 98 per cent of a computer by weight, is in fact, recyclable.

In 2009, the Australian Government implemented a national waste policy, setting targets for e-waste recycling and the diversion of these materials out of landfill sites.

But in 2016, it seems we still aren’t getting the message about e-waste. Research from the University of New South Wales says the policy is poorly implemented, lags behind international best practice, and is based on outdated targets.

This is a tale of forgotten, but not gone.

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The cultural problem with e-waste in Australia

Ashleigh Morris, a researcher from the University of NSW, reviewed Australia’s e-waste laws comparing them to those of two international leaders in the field of e-waste recycling: Japan and Switzerland. The paper concluded the way Australia deals with e-waste is ineffective and needs greater scrutiny over compliance to national policy to prevent hazardous pollutants from ending up in landfill.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics found if 75% of the 1.5 million televisions discarded annually were recycled there would be savings of 23,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalents, 520 mega litres of water, 400,000 gigajoules of energy and 160,000 cubic metres of landfill space.

Ashleigh said the Australian culture around e-waste is a big part of the problem and is what motivated the study.

“It’s an even bigger issue when you look at it in terms of our economy and how our system is thinking and how our country runs,” Ms Morris said.

“We’re living in a very linear economy – a take, make, dispose, cycle – which really doesn’t work because our resources are finite and they’re going to run out.

“There is really no such thing as waste – it’s a valuable product. You pay a certain amount of money for it, but it still has the hazardous elements because of how we put it together.

“The fact that we discard it and consider it with no value is an interesting social concept.”

The legal framework

E-waste recycling in Australia is covered by four key pieces of legislation, including the National Waste Policy 2009 and the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme 2011. One of the biggest issues identified by Ms Morris’ research was the difficulty consumers have trying to decipher the legislation to decide how to responsibility discard our old electronics.

The TV and Computer Scheme requires companies who manufacture or import computers, televisions, printers and computer products over a certain volume to join an approved ‘co-regulatory arrangement’. In essence, the companies must contribute money to an approved e-waste recycler to allow that product to be dismantled at the end of it’s life. This is known as product stewardship, where the companies must have responsibility of that product from cradle to grave.

But Ms Morris said consumers need to take more responsibility and change our culture of consumption, instead of placing it all on the manufacturers.

“What was really interesting for me from the study was the lack of responsibility we put on to consumers – I sometimes felt that the producing companies were held accountable and they often get the extended producer responsibility policies put towards them.

“It’s quite costly when you think you’re running a business and you create a product, that product is sold to the consumer, and you’re the only one with responsibility – that is currently how our Australian system is set up.”

A rubbish dump with large piles of e-waste, computers and televisions, stacked outside under and open-air shed.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve ever tried to work out how to recycle electronics around your house, you may know the difficulty in figuring out how to do it. The TV and Computer Scheme only covers televisions, computers and computer peripherals, but doesn’t include other categories of e-waste like toasters, fridges, mobile phones, or old gaming consoles like a Playstation or X-Box. Household batteries are a different recycling scheme to car batteries, which are different again from batteries from cordless power tools or appliances. Further, this scheme in Australia only requires drop-off points for these goods to be located for some areas, ‘within 100 kilometres’.

“Who in their right mind is going to do that? Absolutely nobody,” Ms Morris said.

“It’s just become so simple for people to throw it away – out of sight, out of mind.

“The huge confusion that results form the current legislation we have. When you say e-waste, most people think it’s the typical electronic products, even your toasters, your fridge, your printer, your laptop, your mobile phone.

“When we go to these council collection sites and they’ve advertised to drop your e-waste off, it’s only computers and their peripherals.

“People get really confused and they’ve gone and made this effort and they’ve found they can’t actually recycle what they wanted to on that day at these set up drop-off days, or collection points.

“People won’t want to make that effort again.”

The Swiss example

Ms Morris’ research used Switzerland’s approach to e-waste as one of the ‘best practice’ examples used in the paper. In 1998, the Swiss Government passed legislation on e-waste recycling.

Under these laws, retailers, manufacturers and importers are required to take back, at no charge, appliances of the kind that they normally stock. Consumers, for their part, are obliged to return end-of-life appliances, and are not allowed to dispose of them via household waste or bulky item collections.

The ordinance covers all sorts of electronic devices, including IT and telecommunications equipment. Despite having no targets set, the system sees the Swiss returning around 15 kilograms of e-waste for recycling every year, and regulates all 10 categories of electronic waste identified in the UNSW research. These categories include large and small appliances, IT equipment, lighting, tools, sports equipment, such as treadmills, and medical devices.

The 10 categories of e-waste, defined by the  European Parliament on WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment)

In comparison to the Swiss system, Australia regulates the recycling of just 2 categories – televisions and computer equipment.

The regulations mean consumers need to be able to easily recycle these items free of charge, however Australia has less than half the number of recycling drop-off points available to consumers than Switzerland – a country of less than eight and a half million people.

*categories regulated by Australian legislation in bold.

  1. Large household appliances (e.g refrigerators, washing machines)
  2. Small household appliances (e.g. vacuum cleaners, toasters, kettles)
  3. IT and telecommunications equipment (e.g. computers, fax machines, phones)
  4. Consumer equipment (e.g. radio sets, iPods, television sets)
  5. Lighting equipment (e.g. luminaries, discharge lamps)
  6. Electrical and electronic tools (with the exception of large-scale stationary industrial tools) (e.g. drills, saws)
  7. Toys, leisure and sports equipment (e.g. treadmills, electronic cars)
  8. Medical devices (with the exception of all implanted and infected products) (e.g. radiotherapy equipment, nuclear medicine)
  9. Monitoring and control instruments (e.g. smoke detectors, heating regulators)
  10. Automatic dispensers (e.g. drink dispensers)

Australia had a target of recycling 50 per cent of TV and computer e-waste in the 2015/16 financial year, growing to 80 percent by 2027, but Ms Morris said focusing on a number ignores the need for cultural change and doesn’t involve all stakeholders properly.

“Switzerland will serve as a good model for people to see that they don’t actually have any set targets but recycle more e-waste than all the countries – focusing on a target is not important, and there has been too much focus on that in Australia

“If we are going to expand the scope of categories to be recycled, and we’re not going to close that time frame to a shorter one, then we’re really not going to curb this problem at all.

“The targets are a big problem in themselves, because they need to be supported by a big number of other factors. ”

Shipping e-waste offshore: out of sight, out of mind

Shipping e-waste is a serious problem, with significant environmental, humanitarian and economic implications. Over the past few years, non-accredited recyclers have been caught in Australia taking payments to recycle e-waste, then exporting the goods to developing countries such as Ghana, China, India, and Nigeria, at a low cost.

While this practice is illegal under the Basel Convention, signed in 1992, if the goods are labelled for reuse or in working order on customs documents, they become exempt making the export technically legal. The Basel Action Network, dedicated to monitoring compliance with the Convention, looked at the issue in a 2013 short documentary called Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia.

When the e-waste arrives in a developing country, it is burned to easily remove plastic and other combustible materials, leaving behind the metals to be sold for cash.

In the rubbish dumps acting as workplaces for residents, safety is non-existent for these workers and the operation is totally unregulated. The burning heaps of electronic equipment see heaving masses of black toxic smoke billowing into the air.  The Basel Action Network found in 2013 many Western nations attempt to justify the export as doing a service to empower developing nations take advantage of the digital age.

Two African e-waste workers, with a wheelbarrow full of wires in front of them. The background is full of thick smoke, the ground around them is black with fire ash, and the workers are covered in tattered clothes stained with dirt and fire ash.
Non-accredited recyclers have been caught in Australia taking payments to recycle e-waste, then exporting the goods to developing countries such as Ghana, China, India, and Nigeria, at a low cost. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A second documentary, The Digital Dump: Exporting Re-use and Abuse to Africa, looked at the thousands of small pop-up computer repair businesses through Africa, often dealing with what were labelled ‘junk electronics’. With few or no safety precautions, workers are often exposing themselves to dangerous, toxic chemicals while dismantling old equipment including lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, beryllium.

Beryllium, as one example, is a difficult element to extract from the earth with 90 per cent of the world’s supply coming from Utah in the United States. Arsenic is a known carcinogen and lead poisoning can cause birth defects, learning difficulties, and severe interference with the nervous system.

These chemicals are finding their way into the water supply, and consequently, food crops in developing countries while the burning piles of e-waste are pumping noxious chemicals into the air.

Could a landfill be a gold mine? (Literally…)

Closer to home, some are realising the value of discarded materials from the days of dial-up modems. Ms Morris said digging up landfills may need to become an option in the near future to atone for lack of policy and simple carelessness of times past.

“The new research is saying that we’re going to be mining our landfills in the next 10-20 years,” Ms Morris said.

“All of the stuff that we’ve thrown in the bin and buried, we now have to go back and dig out because of past mistakes.

“Gold is so sparse in the earth’s crust that when they’re mining it, it costs more money to mine it out of the earth’s crust than it does to get it out of the [discarded] mobile phones.”

Inside televisions and computers, you can find gold selling for up to $50 a gram, platinum at $50 a gram, stainless steel at $2.50 a kilo, copper wire at up to $6 a kilo, and titanium at $4 a kilo. There isn’t much in one machine, but multiply this by hundreds of thousands – even millions – and you can start to see the appeal.

What can you do to help?

How can you change your thinking and make sure the responsibility doesn’t just fall with government, or with electronics manufacturers? Ms Morris said we need to be more conscious of the resources going in to the products we buy.

“We need to move toward the extended producer responsibility, where it’s more of a policy design around how the system is thinking.

“[EPR] looks at the whole life cycle. It doesn’t just place responsibility on a company once they’ve produced the product – it looks at how they can redesign that product from the get-go and how it performs within the system.

“If it does get to the point of end-of-life, is there a way to renew it, repair it, and bring it back into play?

“People’s fear with that, and especially governments fear with that, is the economy. Right now we make products to break.

“I spoke to Toshiba and they make their laptops to break within 3 years and most companies are doing the same, when they have the ability to make them last longer.”

Whether you like it or not, Ms Morris stressed this is a problem for the current generation to address. She said e-waste recycling needs to be made simple and designed with the end result in mind, rather than achieving arbitrary targets or quotas.

“It’s got to be simple. You’ve got to empower the stakeholders that need that empowerment, which are the local councils. They have that direct relationship with the public.

“They should be supported whether it is through funding, or other initiatives to want to educate the public on e-waste, and also provide services that are easy and accessible for consumer to engage with.

“It’s good for young australians particularly to really think about how we are as the younger generation and how we can improve and take care of our nation, and the world.”

What device are you reading this on? Look at it. Look at the plastic, and the metals, and the cords attached to it. Where will it be in just a few years?


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