Australia has one of the highest per capita volumes of e-waste in the world, according to new research by the Economist Intelligence Unit, with an average amount of 19.71 kg produced per person per year.
Chief executive of the Australian New Zealand Recycling Platform Carmel Dollison says this represents a major unsustainable loss of productive resources and a rethink of our approach to e-waste is required.
The ANZRP commissioned the research, which looked at the types of schemes other developed nations such as Finland, Japan, Holland and Germany apply to e-waste. It found that where there were schemes in place that emphasised extended producer responsibility and incentivised recycling for consumers, the rate of recycling of e-waste was much higher.
Currently, the ANZRP operates the National Computer and Television Recycling Scheme. However, with IT hardware spending forecast by the EIU to rise by around 60 per cent between 2009 and 2018, the ANZRP says e-waste needs to be high on the Australian business agenda and the product categories recovered need to be broadened.
Ms Dollison told The Fifth Estate part of the reason Australia has such a high per capita rate of e-waste was that our homes were generally bigger than those in Europe or Japan. They therefore have more TVs and many now have multiples of key household appliances.
Of the 19.71 kg a head each year, she said between 25 and 30 per cent were digital and audiovisual items. The rest comprised items such as electronics, airconditioners and white goods.
“E-waste under the [international] definition is anything that requires a plug or a battery,” Ms Dollison said.
The growing incorporation of “smart” technology into common household items, such as WiFi-enabled sound systems and refrigerators, raises an “interesting dilemma” in recycling terms – as the growing “internet of things” trend also means more waste that has rare earths and precious metals within the circuitry and chips.
“As devices have more capability there will be increasing reliance on technology and that will increase the e-waste stream,” she said.
Churn is part of the problem
The rate of consumer product churn for electronics and digital items was also identified in the EIU research as contributing to the growing volume of waste, with consumers frequently upgrading to the newer, brighter, faster version of items such as laptops, tablets, gaming technology and phones.
A former facilities manager, Ms Dollison said fitout churn in the property sector was also contributing to the high volumes of waste.
“Every time we would do a refurbishment, on each floor the cable had to be upgraded. It always had to be the latest and greatest,” she said.
“People have grasped NABERS and Green Star. There now needs to be a credit for recycling and re-use [of e-waste]. There needs to be some clear leadership that asks, ‘Is there recycling of e-waste such as cabling?’
“People don’t tend to think of that cabling as a resource, and I was guilty of that when I was a facilities manager. It was simply cheaper to add new stuff in than to refurbish or re-use the old.”
Ms Dollison said that’s where the attitude shift needs to occur, because while something like old cabling might not be fit for purpose in a new refurb design, it can probably be re-used by someone elsewhere.
Activity-based working a step in a less wasteful direction
One of the trends she said may reduce the amount of cabling that needs redeployment following a refurb of defit is activity-based working using wireless devices and technology.
“Hot-desking is more efficient in terms of energy use and use of technology, because people are taking the [electronic] products with them; it means its greener as you will not be pulling out thousands of kilometres of cabling when you refurbish,” Ms Dollison said.
“From a resource perspective, the mobile workforce is a step in the right direction.”
She also said free WiFi areas being rolled out in various parts of the country may also reduce waste levels.
“It touches on the point of convergence.”
Need to grow capability in recycling
These positive shifts are, however, only going to slow the rate of growth in e-waste. The need still remains for the right building blocks to be put in place in Australia for a sustainable recycling industry.
“We need to [continue to] establish the collection network and the recyclers need to build infrastructure, then we can build on top of that,” Ms Dollison said.
“For us to make theseschemes work, we need to broaden the base. The cost of recycling in Australia is 2-3 times higher than the cost of recycling in other countries.
“And if it is many times more expensive [than landfill] then manufacturers won’t want to jump on board. Seeing the costs [of recycling] come down will rely on shared responsibility not just on the part of government but also retailers and the community.”
It’s not waste – it’s resources
Ms Dollison said it was extremely important that consumers and manufacturers understood that post-consumer electronics, electrical and digital technology are not waste; they are resources.
“We need to capture those resources into the circular economy as a commodity for manufacturing.”
The e-waste industry also needs to start providing data to the market about how finite the resources are that are used in the manufacture of anything that plugs into a power outlet or runs on batteries.
“The resources we can dig up are finite,” Ms Dollison said. “What happens in 50 years when there are no more resources to dig up?
“The resources in existing products can have an ongoing life and be regenerated over and over and over. For example, the gold which is used in circuit boards – it is 17 times more cost-effective to reuse gold recovered from end of life products than to mine it from virgin ground.
“These are the kinds of things we need to get out there.
“We need the community to understand these are valuable resources, and not just chuck them in the bin.”
Ms Dollison said the industry was keen to support and engage with projects by researchers such as Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla, the director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology, who was awarded an Australian Laureate Fellowship to undertake research into the microrecycling of e-waste.
“It’s great work. That sort of research work needs to be undertaken, about what can be recovered, and is there a better way to do it.”
Stewardship is about all the stakeholders engaging
Fundamentally, there is a need to improve education, awareness and the engagement of all parties in the product lifecycle from manufacturers and retailers through to end-users.
This is echoed in the EIU report, which states that, “managing – and improving – recycling systems for electronics involves a complex interplay of economic and social factors, and a sometimes tense relationship between governments, businesses and consumers. An environment in which responsibilities are more evenly shared, incentives are clearly laid out, roles are more carefully defined and coverage of products is expanded offers the best hope for a more effective and adaptable system.”
Making the schemes broader
Broadening recycling schemes to include more product types was also highlighted.
“For Australia in particular, expanding the scope of products covered by e-waste systems –from mainly televisions and computers to more sophisticated IT devices – deserves serious attention, and could pay dividends by reducing toxic waste, efficiently reusing valuable resources and ultimately reducing costs for businesses and consumers,” the report says.
And there might even be a buck or two in it
Ms Dollison said there was also a growing awareness that opportunities can be derived from e-waste. Nyrstar, the new owners of the Port Pirie lead smelter, she said, were showing an interest in receiving broken down products to create a new revenue stream.
“It’s early days; it’s only just on the radar,” she said.
“More and more people are jumping on the bandwagon.”