Electronic Waste: Forgotten, But Not Gone...by Stringer Press
Forgotten, But Not Gone?
By Stringer Press
Copyright 2017 by Stringer Press. All Rights Reserved.
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Table of Contents
The cultural problem with e-waste in Australia
The legal framework
The Swiss example
The ten categories of electronic waste
Shipping e-waste offshore
Could a landfill be a gold mine? (Literally?)
What can you do to help?
More from Stringer Press
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? 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 2017, 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of New South Wales says the policy is poorly implemented, lags behind international best practice, and is based on outdated targets.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.
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 its 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."
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 from 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.
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