An e-waste artwork cerated with 6000 unused mobiles.

A significant shift in technology user behaviour is needed, according to Planet Ark, with an estimated 23 million mobile phones alone being hoarded in drawers and other places around the country.

If these 23 million unloved digital devices were recycled, Planet Ark estimates it would obviate the need to mine 140,000 tonnes of precious metal ores, recover over 397 tonnes of plastic, and have an environmental impact equivalent to planting 120,000 trees.

To publicise its Mobile Muster program, Planet Ark this week installed a sculpture created by eco artist Chris Jordan from nearly 6000 unused mobiles outside Customs House in Sydney.

Many manufacturers and suppliers are also backing a free national e-waste recycling service called TechCollect under the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme.

Carmel Dollison

Carmel Dollisson, chief executive of the Australian and New Zealand Recycling Platform that operates TechCollect, told The Fifth Estate there were three main reasons people hoarded e-waste. The number one reason was concerns their data may end up in the hands of others. The second was because they generally paid a substantial amount for it, so were holding onto the outdated one “as a spare” just in case they needed it. The third, she says, was a kind of altruistic wish to “give it to the little girl in Biafra who really needs it”.

What really happens to the majority of e-waste once people do let go is it gets exported to China and other nations. A recent leadership forum held by the ANZRP exploded the popular myth that this is because nations like Australia somehow want to export a pollution problem.

“There is a lot of misinformation about e-waste and about what happens when it goes overseas,” Dollison says.

“It is a viable market [in those countries], and it is broken down into commodities. When it goes down into the market in China what can’t be sold into the re-use market is stripped again.

“There is no doubt there is a product hierarchy, and recycling is the last step. They make the most use they can of the resource, much of which is refurbished and re-used. In Australia there is not a huge remarketing opportunity for products like TVs, but for IT and telco products, 70 to 90 per cent of what is landed and used for business in Australia is refurbished and reused offshore. Anything left over then gets recycled.”

One of the major reasons China is so keen to import e-waste from Australia and other high-tech-turnover nations like the US is because the resources gained from those items that cannot be re-used are a direct manufacturing input for the consumer goods produced both for Chinese consumers and for Australian and American ones. Dollison says about 50 per cent of the copper used in new products made in China is recovered copper.

In Australia, the same degree of industrial ecology is not achievable, she says, as so little manufacturing is undertaken here.

Literally, e-waste is a very effective form of mining raw materials for China’s booming manufacturing sector, Dollison says.

She says that what the Australian-based recyclers for this waste category do is the true end-of-life dismantling, with plastics, metals and some of the glass recycled. However, the only recyclers that can do the cathode ray glass and screen glass are located in South Australia, where they are either processed via lead smelter for the lead content or a glass to glass closed loop process. This distance factor means that for many TVs, offshore is the most economic end-of-life destination.

Circuit boards also go offshore, as Dollison says specific technologies are required to extract the best value from the alloys, rare earths, plastics and precious metals they contain. Batteries other than lead acid types can’t be recycled here, so they are also exported. Cables are also generally exported, although depending on the price for metals such as copper, Sims or OneSteel do sometimes take them, strip the plastic covering off and recover the metal resource.

Dollison says that a scrap metal merchant like Sims – one of the world’s largest – is essentially a “commodities trader”.

“What we have seen as waste is in fact a resource,” she says.

“We each have a responsibility to see resources are given a second life. It’s above ground mining. A phone is a useable technology tool, and it has a lot of resources in it, and we need to value it. Recycling is 17 times more effective [in terms of producing metals] than mining from the ground.”

“Recycling is 17 times more effective than mining from the ground”

Dollison says many of the technology manufacturers such as Dell, Panasonic and Apple are embracing the product stewardship idea, creating products that are designed for recycling, and also looking at the footprint of shipping and packaging. Dell has begun producing the first closed loop computer product, the Optiplex 3030, made entirely from re-purposed and upcycled parts of original Dell computers.

Some of the manufacturers are also looking at how to make products that are upgradeable by users, and examining sustainable procurement strategies and links with industrial ecology.

The bottom line, Dollison says, is we are in a situation of resource scarcity for metals and other raw materials, and we are also “killing ourselves with over-consumption”.

“We need to make sure resources are re-used, or dealt with properly at end of product life,” she says.

China’s e-waste hunger

Adam Minter

Bloomberg journalist Adam Minter, who undertook a major investigative reporting adventure into the global e-waste and scrap metal trade that took him from small-town USA to the back blocks of China, spoke at the ANZRP forum, delivering a wake-up call about the fate of consumer electronics.

His book, Junkyard Planet, explores the wide spectrum of recycling operations and re-use markets, from high-tech facilities where copper and plastic cable casings are carefully sorted and appropriately and relatively safely recycled, to toxic, smoke-hazed villages where workers without safety gear use high-strength acids to dissolve out metals and left-over plastics burn in open pits.

Speaking with The Fifth Estate after the forum, Minter says anyone trying to understand the international flows of waste needs to understand that it is actually a raw materials business, and that to use the raw materials, there has to be manufacturing occurring.

“China is hungry for raw materials. I wanted to disabuse people of the notion that it’s just waste offloaded into the developing world. It’s not just [going there] because of cheap wages; it’s about the manufacturers’ need for materials,” Minter says.

Junkyard Planet

“We’d all like to dictate standards in terms of how the developing world deals with stuff. If people don’t like how this stuff is recycled [in China] they have to talk to the [original] manufacturer about how they deal with stuff.”

Another misconception Minter says is, generally, all e-waste sent to China is being “recycled and burnt”. There is, however, a substantial proportion of it being re-used, with a large market in Africa and India for first generation discarded technology.

“That’s why Samsung are active in the anti-export market – not out of environmental concerns – it’s because they don’t want to see their used products competing with new products,” Minter says.

“India’s technology re-use markets are now refilled with used electronics from China.”

Minter says there is still a need to reduce waste in the first place, no matter how well it is re-used or recycled at end of life. For one thing, it’s usually discarded before it’s anywhere near it’s “end-of-life.”

“Imagine if I bought a $2000 coffee maker and then decide within less than two years to throw it out and the buy another… and then toss it out also,” he says. “That would be insane.”

“But for some reason people lose their minds with portable technology.”

He said that while we have to let people make up their own minds about consumption, in terms of waste and environmental impact, the “developed world doesn’t have a leg to stand on” in any debate about the rights or wrongs of how China’s recyclers process materials. It’s our product churn they’re sorting, dismantling, upcycling, recycling and sometimes incinerating.

“We have to be honest about the cost of our consumption,” Minter says.

He would like to see manufacturers put a panel similar to a food nutrition panel on product packaging that shows consumers the energy inputs and other resources that have been consumed in the manufacture of each unit. It should also state specifically what parts are recycled and how.

“With complex electronics, none of them are 100 per cent recycled,” he says.

“The sign saying ‘we’ll recycle your phone’ – that’s not how it works. I still believe recycling is only marginally better than incineration. There is no such thing as a 100 per cent closed loop – paper can only be recycled six times before it loses its usefulness, plastics once.

“I still believe recycling is only marginally better than incineration.”

“Manufacturers and marketers need to be honest with consumers. A lot of people believe the marketing, and that is a failure of the company [making a product] to explain fully and be fully honest.

“People tend to be smart, and given the right information will make the right choices. Currently, they think they can upgrade technology and it doesn’t cost the planet.

“People care about the environment and recycling, no doubt, but it gets highly politicised, and that’s a pity.”

Minter says studies have shown that people will actually consume more if a recycling bin is put in front of them, and that companies like Apple are tapping into the environmental concerns of its design-conscious, educated customer base with claims of recycling the phone that just got traded for the newest one.

“People have to know there’s a cost to consumption,” Minter says.

“When you hand in your mobile phone, it doesn’t mean it’s going to recycling heaven. Even the best recyclers use [coal-fired] electricity; they are not all run on solar.

“Some allegedly green-minded corporations and governments have really mis-served well-intentioned people by giving the right impression.

“I think that’s the most important step for sustainability: provide people with information for sustainability, the cost in terms of energy and resources to consume, the terrestrial impact. I think that changes behaviour. For example, manufacturers will say, ‘We want our smart phone to cost less energy to assemble.’ Manufacturers need to disclose what they are costing consumers in terms of energy – the more information [consumers get] the merrier.”