IT’s legacy a nasty land­fill

Com­put­ers, mo­bile phones, print­ers and toner car­tridges of­ten end up in waste dumps, writes Keith Orchi­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Investments -

WHAT do you do with an un­wanted mouse? The prob­lem in Aus­tralia, say the waste man­age­ment ad­vo­cates, is that far too many peo­ple dump the mouse — along with mo­bile phones, tele­vi­sions, VCRs, copiers, com­put­ers and key­boards — in the garbage.

Aus­tralians have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing among the world’s keen­est users of tech­nol­ogy, but they are not show­ing much con­cern for the en­vi­ron­ment as they rush to up­grade their elec­tronic gad­getry with new mod­els.

Gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates sug­gest that Aus­tralians have dis­carded or stock­piled a to­tal of about nine mil­lion per­sonal com­put­ers alone, but the au­thor­i­ties ad­mit to hav­ing no real grasp of the ex­tent of of the prob­lem.

Ac­cord­ing to the Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics, more than 2.4 mil­lion PCs are sold in this coun­try each year. The ABS reck­ons that nine mil­lion com­put­ers, five mil­lion print­ers and two mil­lion scan­ners have been re­placed be­tween 2006 and 2008.

In 2006 this re­sulted in some 1.6 mil­lion PCs be­ing sent to land­fill rub­bish dumps, but this is only the tip of e- waste pile: thou­sands of tonnes of bro­ken mon­i­tors, used toner and ink car­tridges, modems, print­ers and other elec­tronic con­sum­ables are also be­ing dumped.

The num­ber of com­put­ers re­cy­cled in 2006 is es­ti­mated to have been only 500,000.

It is es­ti­mated that, in NSW alone, up to 5000 tonnes of com­put­ers and re­lated equip­ment and up to 15,000 tonnes of tele­vi­sions and other en­ter­tain­ment equip­ment are be­ing dumped in land­fills each year.

The Syd­ney- based To­tal En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre be­lieves only 3 per cent of out­moded mo­bile phones are re­cy­cled.

Na­tion­ally, ac­cord­ing to Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates, more than 7000 tonnes a year of haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als are in­volved in e- waste dump­ing.

The prob­lem is grow­ing fast. Re­cent en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment es­ti­mates set the num­ber of com­put­ers in Aus­tralian homes and of­fices at 24 mil­lion and pre­dict there will be 35 mil­lion by 2015.

Why has this prob­lem emerged in a coun­try that has an oth­er­wise fairly good rep­u­ta­tion for em­brac­ing re­cy­cling — and in other de­vel­oped na­tions?

The an­swer lies in the man­u­fac­ture of elec­tronic goods from a large range of com­po­nents that are un­us­able for fur­ther man­u­fac­ture un­til the prod­uct is bro­ken up and the com­po­nents sep­a­rated, fre­quently with dif­fi­culty and at con­sid­er­able cost.

E- waste also in­cludes a num­ber of

nas- ties’’ — such as ar­senic, cad­mium, car­bon black, lead and mer­cury, which in rub­bish dumps even­tu­ally leach into the wa­ter ta­ble.

The pic­ture is not uni­ver­sally dark: a pro­gram ini­ti­ated by the Aus­tralian Mo­bile Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions As­so­ci­a­tion along with Planet Ark has seen hun­dreds of thou­sands of mo­bile phones re­cy­cled this decade, en­abling the re­cy­cling of their gold, nickel, cop­per and plas­tics com­po­nents while bat­tery cad­mium out of land­fills and there­fore out of the wa­ter ta­ble. A pro­gram has also been launched to re­cy­cle printer toner car­tridges.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment, how­ever, says vol­un­tary ef­forts are nowhere near good enough. It wants the fed­eral, state and ter­ri­tory gov­ern­ments to pur­sue reg­u­la­tion to drive e- waste re­cov­ery, ar­gu­ing that the sales price of new elec­tronic equip­ment should in­clude a re­cy­cling de­posit suf­fi­cient to drive con­sumers to hand back old prod­ucts when buy­ing new ones.

It has not been slow to re­mind fed­eral En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Peter Gar­rett that he sup­ported de­posit leg­is­la­tion when he led the Aus­tralian Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion. In re­sponse, Gar­rett has is­sued a state­ment that the Rudd Gov­ern­ment has iden­ti­fied elec­tronic waste as a na­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity.’’ The Gov­ern­ment, he says, is work­ing ac­tively with in­dus­try to find the most ap­pro­pri­ate so­lu­tion’’.

Clean Up Aus­tralia head Ian Kier­nan de­scribes e- waste as eas­ily Aus­tralia’s big­gest emerg­ing waste chal­lenge’’. It is be­ing sent to land­fill, he says, at three times the rate of other gen­eral or mu­nic­i­pal waste. The ( re­sult­ing) toxic cock­tail of chem­i­cals is not only haz­ardous to hu­mans — it is dis­as­trous for the en­vi­ron­ment, es­pe­cially when it en­ters our ground­wa­ter sys­tems.’’

While Kier­nan de­scribes the re­sponse of man­u­fac­tur­ers to the is­sue as en­cour­ag­ing’’, he says there is sub­stan­tial scope for them to do more un­der the tenet of ex­tended pro­ducer re­spon­si­bil­ity. Busi­ness has two op­tions, he ar­gues: take re­spon­si­bil­ity vol­un­tar­ily for its junked prod­ucts or have it im­posed by leg­is­la­tion.

The To­tal En­vi­ron­ment Cen­tre adds that deal­ing with the prob­lem in full also re­quires gov­ern­ments to come up with a pro­gram to col­lect and re­cy­cle the com­put­ers, mo­biles and other elec­tronic equip­ment col­lect­ing dust in Aus­tralia’s store rooms, garages and desk draw­ers.

The IT in­dus­try op­poses reg­u­la­tion.

Sup­ply ex­ceeds de­mand: Com­put­ers con­tain valu­able com­po­nents, but sal­vage is time- con­sum­ing and costly

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