IT’s legacy a nasty landfill
Computers, mobile phones, printers and toner cartridges often end up in waste dumps, writes Keith Orchison
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