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Can Australia do better on e-waste?

Australians are among the highest users of technology and e-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste

The majority of electronic waste (e-waste) produced in Australia is not recycled, a figure that needs to change, according Dan Pritchard, CEO of IT asset lifecycle management provider Greenbox. 

Figures by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) indicate that Australians are among the highest users of technology and e-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste. 

As of 2008, 17 million televisions and 37 million computers had been sent to landfill, according to ABS research. Indeed, of the 15.7 million computers that reached their 'end of life' in Australia in 2007-08, only 1.5 million were recycled — less than 10 per cent, ABS records show. 

According to the ABS, collection services began to be introduced gradually across Australia from mid-2012 and the scheme is designed to build on existing recycling services already available.

However, the most recent figures by the ABS show that the Australian economy domestically generated 465,818 tonnes of e-waste in 2016-17, with 253,507 tonnes, or 54.4 per cent, going to landfill. The data also show that households overwhelmingly produce the bulk of e-waste in Australia. 

E-waste ending up in landfill presents a few problems, according to the ABS. 

“Televisions and computers contain hazardous materials such as lead, cadmium and mercury, which need to be managed in a safe manner,” the ABS said on its website. “Despite this many computers and televisions are disposed [of] with household rubbish and end up in landfill.”

While the figures on e-waste provided by the ABS are not new, or even recent, and although programs have since been implemented to improve the rate of recycling, for Pritchard, there remains much room for Australia to improve on its e-waste record.

To mark World Environment Day — 5 June — Pritchard is calling on the Australian ICT industry to join together to “become a solution” to Australia’s e-waste problem.

“Australians are amongst the highest users of technology and e-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste in our country,” Pritchard said. 

“My challenge to the technology sector in Australia and to all ICT decision makers in both the private sector and government, is to ensure they are making informed decisions with their ICT lifecycle management, and to help Australia stop contributing unnecessarily to landfill,” he added.

According to Greenbox, 95 per cent of Australia’s typical e-waste, including computers, laptops, monitors, printers, scanners, mobile phones, multi-function devices, copiers and fax machines, can be recycled. Clearly, with the most recent ABS figures suggesting over half of e-waste still ends up in landfill, there is room for improvement.

But how does Australia’s record on e-waste compare to the rest of the world?

Read more on the next page...

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Each year, around 50 million tonnes of e-waste is produced, equivalent in weight to all commercial aircraft ever built, but only 20 per cent is formally recycled, according to a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). 

“If nothing is done, the amount of waste will more than double by 2050, to 120 million tonnes annually,” the A New Circular Vision for Electronics: Time for a Global Reboot report stated. 

Perhaps more problematic is that much of the e-waste that is purported to be recycled ends up where it shouldn’t. 

In 2019, global environmental watchdog organisation Basel Action Network (BAN) released the findings of a two-year study in 10 EU countries that followed 314 old computers, printers and monitors in which GPS Trackers had been secretly installed.

According to BAN, the equipment was delivered to places where consumers would be expected to take their waste — most often government-approved takeback stations. 

It was found that six per cent of the tracked scrap equipment was exported, including 11 very likely illegal shipments to the countries of Ghana, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand, and Ukraine — all outside of the EU.

While that study focused on the EU, BAN has also uncovered similar issues arising from the Australian market.

A year-long United Nations-funded study by BAN revealed in 2018 that two of 35 old computers, printers, and monitors left at consumer take-back desks at an electronics retailer in Australia were exported to developing countries in Asia in a “likely contravention of international law,” BAN said.  

According to BAN, another study by the United Nations University reports that Australia generates more than 570,000 tons of e-waste every year. 

Extrapolation of the exports BAN identified could well represent as much as 16,302 tons of such e-waste exported to developing countries per year and would fill around 900 intermodal containers.

“These exports should never have happened," said Jim Puckett, BAN's founder and director, in 2018. “And it stands to reason that this discovery represents far more volume than simply two devices. It is imperative that the Australian government conduct a full review of their consumer takeback programs, and prosecute any violators for criminal trafficking in hazardous waste.”