The e-waste challenge

Should we have a levy on electronics equipment, and will it help? DAVID MARKUS

David Markus Combo

By David Markus

Would a levy to help with e-waste help a growing problem?

Let’s start by looking at the size of the problem. According to the ABS, household use of computers is growing. In 2006/07 there were 5.1 million homes with internet access, so we assume 5.1 million computers.

Obviously there are more in use in industry and many homes have more than one PC, so let’s assume conservatively that Australia has 10 million computers.

In general computers are replaced every two to eight years let’s be generous and assume an average life of five years. So every year at least two million computers are being disposed of in Australia.

Dumping e-waste in landfill means toxic heavy metals including lead, mercury and cadmium may make their way into soil and groundwater.

The management of Sims Group (a worldwide recycling company) is getting vocal about this with their general manager of sustainability, Peter Netchaef, proposing the Federal Government impose a levy on imported computers to curb the build-up of electronic waste.

More importantly Jeremy Sutcliffe, executive director of Sims Recycling Solutions, called for the Government to act now on compulsory legislation regarding the recycling of e-waste.

According to Sutcliffe, e-recycling rates in Australia have been very poor, with less than 4% of the e-waste generated being processed. Compare this to countries that have introduced stewardship programs and e-recycling legislation, including all countries in the EU, some states in the US, Japan and Korea, which now have e-waste recycling rates in excess of 80%.

Australia also has lower standards for hazardous materials and I personally have been offered cheap batches of machines that have been ex-EU where they could not be sold due to non-compliance for content. Without tougher requirements Australia will become a dumping ground for products deemed contaminated in the US, EU and Japan.

We are at the mercy of our legislators on this one.

So what can we do to reduce our impact on this?

First, we can ask for clear information on the toxic components in our computers and compare them against international standards.

Second, we can reduce storage of retired machines and pass them to legitimate recyclers so they get a second useful life before being scrapped. Many not-for-profit organisations will re-use two to four year old PCs, so don’t just stick it aside in case you need it later.

As Australians we tend to hang on to our computers until they are no use to anyone. By the time they go to the recyclers they are being broken down into useable parts and raw materials.

According to estimates it costs around $30 to recycle the materials here in Australia while in countries such as China it can be as little as $2, so much of the world’s hazardous waste is being sent to the third world for manual separation.

At this point we should all know about the Basel Convention which came into force in 1992. It aims to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects resulting from the generation, management, trans-boundary movements and disposal of hazardous and other wastes.

Basel Action group recently published an article generated by 60 Minutes journalists on the topic of breaking down e-waste. It was not a pretty picture, with entire villages in third world countries being polluted and workers absorbing poisons that will last generations over the instant pain of poverty.

If Australia does not want to be a source of toxic waste, we need to look to our manufacturing standards and ensure we do not permit higher levels of toxins than our counterparts like the US and the EU.

We must start to think ahead and plan the inevitable destruction of every electronic device we manufacture or import to ensure we are not building a toxic stockpile for future generations.

Whether we impose a levy now or pay for it later through clean up efforts, we will pay for it nonetheless. We could start looking at how to reduce planned obsolescence and build equipment with modular components designed for continual upgrades rather than complete exchange.

This is not a problem consumers are yet empowered to fix, but we can start asking for solutions from the technology companies. We can also start looking at our toxic foot prints and seeking smarter and cleaner solutions.

Please do look up your local clean computer recycler and think disposal before you buy more electronic equipment.


David Markus is the founder of Melbourne’s IT services company Combo. His focus is on big picture thinking to create value in IT systems for the SME sector.

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