Annually, e-waste comprises up to 50 million tonnes, or 8%, of municipal waste worldwide and is one of the fastest-growing sources of refuse. Disposing of e-waste in landfills can lead to toxic chemicals leaching into the ground over time, while incinerating it releases the chemicals into the air. Chemicals like mercury build up over time in the food chain, eventually reaching human consumption.
Recycling companies are often not what they claim to be – rather than dismantling broken goods in purpose-built facilities, they will be sent illegally to developing countries as ‘second-hand goods’. They are then torn apart by hand to gain access to the valuable materials inside, thereby exposing workers – often children – to dangerous substances like mercury, cadmium and lead.
Between 50-80% of American computers eventually reach the developing world in this way. This export of e-waste is in violation of international law in many instances, but the practice continues because it is far cheaper to ‘recycle’ a product in a developing country than a developed one.
Australia is one of the ten highest consuming countries of electronics in the world, and is increasingly facing an e-waste problem. In 2008, 37 million Australian computers were sent to landfill, while a mere 1.5 million were recycled. Of the 1.5 million televisions we throw out every year, if 75% were recycled we could save 23,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, 520 mega litres of water and 160,000 cubic metres of landfill. Government and community initiatives in recent years have increased the number of old electronics that are being recycled, but there is still a substantial effort to be made.
The National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme was introduced in 2011 and involves a combination of government regulation and industry action to take responsibility for the collection and recycling of waste televisions, computers, printers and computer products. Under the Scheme, householders and small business can drop-off these items for free at designated access points. Problems with the system have seen some processes closing (ABC, Sept 2014).
- RankABrand – Sustainability: Electronics
- United Nations – Waste Management
- Electronics Take Back Coalition – Facts and Figures on e-Waste and Recycling
- Greenpeace – Guide to Greener Electronics, 2012 report
- 60 Minutes US – Following the Trail of Toxic E-Waste
Existing Campaigns and Advocacy Work
- Basel Action Network BAN works to prevent the globalization of the toxic chemical crisis. The Basel Ban decision effectively banned as of 1 January 1998, all forms of hazardous waste exports from the 29 wealthiest most industrialized countries of the OECD to all non-OECD countries. See Country Status table – note, Australia has ratified the Basel Convention but not the Basel Ban.
Key Standards and Certifications
The ‘AS/NZS 5377:2013 Collection, storage, transport and treatment of end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment’ standard outlines minimum requirements for the safe and environmentally sound handling of e-waste.
- ISO 14001 is an international standard that aims to assist businesses in introducing an Environmental Management System (EMS) in order to achieve positive environmental outcomes, such as reducing waste and improving efficiency.
- Published in 2008 by the Basel Action Network (BAN), the e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment is a third-party certificate available to all electronics recyclers. Companies which wish to be certified are subject to two initial audits and then undergo a yearly audit to ensure standards are maintained.
- The Responsible Recycling Practices Standard (R2) is a two-stage accreditation standard that assesses electronics recycling companies’ commitment to responsible practices. (See criticisms regarding loopholes here and here).
Groups for Collections and Refurbishment
- TechCollect – industry-backed recycling scheme operating under the Commonwealth Government’s National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS). This free service is backed by Toshiba, Canon, Epson, HP, Fuji Xerox, Dell and Panasonic.
- Mobile Muster – government accredited mobile phone recycling program, voluntarily funded by Microsoft, Motorola, Samsung, HTC, Huawei, ZTE, Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, Virgin Mobile, and Force Technology.
- Cartridges 4 Planet Ark is a free, environmentally-accredited scheme to remanufacture and recycle used printer cartridges. Participating members include Brother, Canon, Epson, HP, Konica, Minolta and Kyocera.
Refurbishment and sale of second hand equipment
- Green PC – Melbourne
- Rebootit – Melbourne
- Connect IT – a social enterprise
- Computer Bank – Melbourne
- Entekom – Brisbane, social enterprise
- SORT – various sites in South east Queensland, social enterprise
- Reuse initiative – Melbourne
Sims Metal Management is the world’s largest metals and electronics recycler. The video below shows the process of e-waste breakdown for recycling.
Opportunities for Action
- Recycle your old computers, tablets, televisions, mobile phones and printer cartridges with one of the above programs.
- Purchases refurbished computers instead of new. See links above.
- Purchase electronic goods from companies that are leading the industry in efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle e-waste.