Sustainability, Waste

E-Waste Recycling in Australia

E-Waste is equipment that is dependent on electric currents or electromagnetic fields in order to function and that has reached the end of its lifecycle, thereby being discarded by a user. Such equipment can include: entertainment electronics (televisions, DVD players); information and communication technology (computers, telephones, mobile phones); household appliances (fridges, washing machines, microwaves); lighting devices (desk lamps); power tools; and other devices such as remote control toys or fitness machines.

Australians are among the highest users of technology and e-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste in the world (Cucchiella et al., 2015), with 17 million televisions and 37 million computers being sent to Australian landfills up to 2008 (Pink, 2013). The rapid pace at which technology is developing contributes to the increasing generation of e-waste, growing at three times faster than any other waste type in Australia . In 2014, Australia generated 470,000 tonnes of e-waste or approximately 20 kg per person. By comparison, Germany and the USA had higher generation rates at 21.6 kg and 22.1 kg per person respectively, while Japan and China generated less at 17.3 kg and 4.4 kg per person respectively (Balde et al., 2015).

The disposal of e-waste is becoming a priority because of the increase in consumption of raw materials, the occupancy of space by e-waste in landfills (as typically the recycling rate for televisions and computers has been very low) and the hazardous substances they contain (Pink, 2013). The latter is of particular concern since it poses serious environmental and health risks. Hazardous substances in e-waste can contaminate air, soil and water bodies through wind dispersal, leaching and other methods. In turn, they pollute the environment and can find their way into the food chain or drinking water supply through bio-accumulation and chemical absorption (E-Waste Info Guide, 2009).

Direct exposure to hazardous substances can also pose serious health risks when they are directly ingested, inhaled or through other forms of contact. For example, small quantities of arsenic in the form of gallium arsenide (listed as a carcinogen by the European Chemical Agency) can be found in LED light bulbs, which can lead to skin and lung related diseases. Another example is lead, found in old cathode-ray TV screens and batteries, which has a history of causing brain damage and kidney failure (Grant et al., 2013). The list of hazardous substances is extensive and markedly so when accounting for the potential concoction of such a varied composition of e-waste mixed with other waste types in landfills, as these have the potential to mix with other substances of liquids that have similarly been discarded (E-Waste Info Guide, 2009).

Problems with E-Waste in Australia

Australia has attempted to tackle the problem of e-waste by introducing legislation and targeted recycling schemes. Although there has certainly been progress, much is left in the way of reform. Almost 90% of generated e-waste in Australia, or 18 kg per person, is still sent to landfills each year despite the success of the national recycling scheme (the ‘NTCRS’). If the e-waste isn’t sent to landfill, it is then illegally exported to China, India and West Africa, where it contributes to the pollution of local ecosystems or even fuels the use of child labour (Donelly, 2014). The quantity of e-waste that is shipped from Australia is unknown but the practice continues because of the cheaper costs incurred compared to recycling it.

One of the key reasons behind the growing e-waste problem in Australia is consumer behaviour and the wasteful habits it encourages. The country has had an unprecedented record of 26 years of economic growth and seen a consistent, continual increase in workers’ wages. The additional savings means more money is and can be spent on high-value items such as new laptops, electronic tablets, etc. Many telecommunication companies even offer their customers brand new mobile phones upon the start and end of mobile plan contracts; some of them heavily discounted and others at no extra cost. This propagates consumer attitudes towards electronics by “deflating” the value of the product in the minds of consumers.

Additionally, the planned obsolescence of products does little in the way to prevent over-consumption and waste of electronic and electrical goods. This holds true particularly when observing the rationale behind consumers purchasing new products as opposed to paying for repairs. “If the cost of purchasing a brand new item from the store is less than it costs to repair, why would anyone opt for the repair option? Besides, technology is moving so fast that by the time tomorrow comes, the same product will be cheaper and obsolete anyway.” This then contributes to the e-waste problem and the Australian “throw-away” culture (Wibowo, 2016).

In the post-consumption phase of a product, Australians who make an effort to recycle their e-waste are uncertain of which products can be recycled and where. Bulky e-waste is often placed on the street-front for collection and different local councils have different policies and regulations for dealing with curbside collection, which only exacerbates the problem (Metternicht & Morris, 2016).

Drop-off points exist for the collection of e-waste but they lack full coverage across the country, where in some instances residents will have to travel up to 100 km to their nearest centre (Metternicht & Morris, 2016). This, coupled with the lax style of garbage collection Australians are used to (house-to-house rather than collection points), attributes to the low collection rate of e-waste in the country.

Furthermore, existing recycling laws do not cover the full scope of e-waste present. The national recycling collection scheme (see ‘NTCRS’) is only in place for some products, namely televisions and computers, although it was only recently introduced and has plans to expand its coverage to other products beyond televisions and computers (DEE, 2016).

The National Television & Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS)

The NTCRS was established under the Product Stewardship Act of 2011 to provide Australian households and small business with access to industry-funded collection and recycling services for televisions and computers (DEE, 2016). Householders and small businesses could now drop-off their unwanted televisions and computer products free of charge at selected collection locations across Australia.

The scheme aims to:

  • Reduce waste sent to landfill, particularly hazardous materials from e-waste;
  • Increase the recovery of reusable materials in a safe, scientific and environmentally friendly way; and
  • Provide access for households and small businesses in the country to an industry-funded recycling service.

It also aims to lift the recycling rate of electronic equipment to 80% by 2022 (OEH, 2016). Since 2011, the NTCRS has collected and recycled more than 130,000 tonnes of e-waste. In 2014-15 alone, the scheme had recycled 44,730.5 tonnes of e-waste, although an estimated 121,886.3 tonnes of televisions and computers continued to reach end-of-life in Australia during the same period (DEE, 2016). However, the industry’s target under the scheme was to recycle 35% of this amount, which equates to around 42,650 tonnes, meaning that the scheme’s target was achieved.

The guiding principle of the NTCRS is product stewardship; the approach of managing the impacts of different products and materials throughout their lifecycle. It acknowledges that those involved in producing, selling, using and disposing of products have a shared responsibility to ensure those products are managed in a way that reduced their impact on the environment and on human health and safety (DEE, 2016). The scheme is implemented through a co-regulatory approach; government lays out the targets and desired outcomes for the scheme while the industry funds and carries out activities that best achieve these outcomes.

In the submissions received by the Department of Environment, several local councils noted issues with the current scheme and potential improvements. These include: a lack of communication between industry members, site operators, local councils and the general community; placing a tariff on imported goods; the ad hoc closure of drop-off points that reach their e-waste quota intake; unambitious targets; and the lack of support from the federal government beyond the initial set-up of the scheme (DEE, 2016).

The department continues to take note of the submissions and work towards amending the scheme and its targets. Whether they will be successful in future developments remains to be seen.

Comments

Developed economies need to take more assertive measures in the handling of e-waste if the consumption of new electrical and electronic goods increases together with their turnover rates. Australia should be no exception.

An increase in the recycling of 80% of generated e-waste by 2022 may at first seem ambitious but after some consideration, it might not seem far-fetched at all. The technology exists to recycle and recover up to 90% of the materials in e-waste and much of the infrastructure is already in place, albeit a few regional areas of Australia lacking coverage and proximity. The attention then shifts to the collection process and the stakeholders involved.

At this point, it can already be seen from the submissions given to the Department of Environment that there is a lack of communication between key players and confusion over the roles and responsibilities. Several of the local councils feel left out from policy developments or that there is a lack of consultation on such items.

The principle of product stewardship has a base appeal. In theory, private firms should be held accountable for the entire lifecycle of the products they design and manufacture – cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-cradle. Implementing this principle is not as simple, with many questions to consider in the preparation and amendment of a scheme. Some of these can include whether a government should impose tax or tariffs on imports, how long an acceptable lifecycle of an electrical or electronic product should be and what design limitations or compositions could be accepted by such a scheme.

Generally speaking, new habits are hard to introduce and old ones hard to break. Convincing Australians to proactively seek out a drop-off point for the disposal of their e-waste is a contrast to the minimal effort needed on the household’s part under the curbside collection system, where “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality prospers. Partly linked to this point is keeping consumers informed of the lifecycle of e-waste and stress the growing concern that this is becoming. Australians have to think beyond the curbside collection of their waste.

To tackle the “throw-away” culture, two items can be addressed; that of planned obsolescence in the design of products and the lack of emphasis on repair-work. Interestingly enough, Sweden has introduced tax breaks for consumers who repair their electronic and electrical goods as a way of combating e-waste, where up to half of the labour cost on repairs can be claimed back from income tax (Orange, 2016). This may set a model for Australia to adapt if reviews are favourable.

Lastly, on the point of recycling precious metals; Australia has a strong mining economy that is world leading in the production of gold, silver, zinc, nickel, copper, rare earth elements and other minerals. Much of this is exported to neighbouring Asian markets where the metals are manufactured into electronic circuits, renewable energy generators and other high-tech goods. Recycling the materials to export back to neighbouring countries and further retain a closed loop of the materials only seems sensible. The creation of jobs and ventures in a niche area could also assist Australia’s declining manufacturing sector.

There have been strides to tackle e-waste in Australia, with the NTCRS being the prime example. It is also the only scheme in place that targets e-waste, with a limited scope and arguably low targets. In its defence, it is a flagship program to set precedence for future models and is thus in need for continuous innovation and reform before it can achieve its full potential. The question here is “How quickly can the scheme reform,” or “Can the scheme encompass and capture all of Australia’s e-waste; for past, present and future?” It will be interesting to observe future changes in this area of Australia’s waste management.


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