Australia stuck in e-waste dark ages

E-waste is contaminating our soil and waterways three times faster than general waste. But industry, government and consumers aren't doing enough to combat the problem

This year marks the twelfth anniversary of Planet Ark's National Recycling Week (12th-18th November), and the problem of e-waste in Australia is growing bigger and badder with each passing year.

Planet Ark's recycling program manager, Brad Gray, said that e-waste is emerging as one of the biggest issues in recycling.

"Compared to clothing or curbside recycling, e-waste recycling is decades behind. 75 per cent of newspapers and 70 per cent of aluminium cans are recycled. Currently nothing like that figure is being achieved in any of the e-waste areas," he said.

"The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates e-waste in Australia is growing at more than three times the rate of general municipal waste," Gray said.

Resource conservation campaigner at the Total Environment Centre (TEC) Jane Castle said Australia is way behind the rest of the world in combating e-waste.

"Europe, Canada, the US, Japan and many other countries have mandated extended producer responsibility which requires computer producers to collect and recycle, but Australia has stalled for a decade. NSW has had the power to mandate producer collection and recycling for six years, but bureaucratic inaction has crippled progress," she said.

E-waste is more complicated than other forms of recycling, as the equipment is made up of a large number of different and varying materials -- plastics, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, glass, and electronic boards -- many of which are dangerous or toxic.

But Castle believes the difficulty in recycling e-waste is over-hyped, and more should be done.

"Computers aren't complicated to recycle. Two-thirds of the cost is for collection and 99 per cent of a computer can now be recycled," she said.

The ABS reports that around 92.5 million electronic items are held in Australian homes, an average of 22 per household. It estimates Australians will replace 9 million computers, 5 million printers, and 2 million scanners within the next two years.

Planet Ark's Gray points to the rapid adoption of new technologies as a driving force behind the mountains of e-waste piling up, and calls for the government to implement a national plan to combat the problem.

"Australia doesn't have a national e-waste management scheme. There are a number of responsible businesses like Dell who take responsibility for their products from beginning to end, but many other businesses take no responsibility," he said.

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By the end of this year, Hewlett-Packard claims it will have recycled nearly half a billion kilograms of IT equipment worldwide, while IBM offers a global initiative allowing companies to recycle old equipment, as well as a local recycling initiative.

But according to Dell's communications manager, Paul McKeon, Dell is the only computer manufacturer or retailer in Australia to offer free pickup and recycling for any of their old PCs, as well as being the only vendor to offer a local paid recycling service for consumers.

"Around this time last year the ABS came out with an estimate that said around 3 million PCs (including notebooks and desktops) are bought in Australia each year," McKeon said.

He said that around 500,000 of those get recycled, some 1.8 million are sent to landfill, and the remainder end up in storage.

"If you look at what Dell recycled last year through our programs, we recycled around 300 tonnes of PCs last year, and even that is a very small proportion of all the PCs that were bought last year," McKeon said.

Dell has hosted six free community recycling days in Australia and New Zealand since 2005. HP, Apple, and Acer have each held their own one-off recycling days.

But Castle says the TEC's patience is running out, and believes these kinds of events detract attention from the more important step of achieving government intervention.

"Piecemeal take-back events are no disguise for back-room lobbying by industry to stop mandatory recycling," she said.

In Victoria, HP and Sustainability Victoria along with the Australian Information Industry Association(AIIA), launched the Byteback scheme in 2005 to boost recycling of used computing equipment, and have since brought nine other leading vendors on board.

"It has currently expanded to three recycling centres and there are plans to expand it again next year," Dell's McKeon said.

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In August, AIIA CEO Sheryle Moon said the Byteback scheme will be used to lobby the federal government to mandate compulsory nationwide e-waste recycling.

"The federal and state governments have been very receptive to the idea and, together with our state [AIIA chapters], they are waiting on the results to deploy the campaign across Australia," she said.

Castle, however, is less optimistic.

"State and federal governments need to take action. This is not rocket science. As soon as NSW regulates, other states will follow suit and fall into line. Computers aren't difficult to recycle. What is difficult is getting industry to stop crying wolf that the sky is going to fall in, and governments to muster more political will."

"Without regulation to guarantee the numbers, recycling companies won't invest in new infrastructure and we'll remain stuck in the e-waste dark ages," she said.

Businesses and consumers can check out Planet Ark's RecyclingNearYou Web site for details on disposal of electronic goods in their local area, or contact the National Recycling Hotline on 1300 733 712.