New technology challenge for recyclers

16/07/2009 - 00:00

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Rapid changes in the uptake of technology are presenting waste issues for our disposable society.

New technology challenge for recyclers

FROM roadside verges to council tips, piles of computers, televisions and gadgetry are presenting an increasing issue in Western Australia.

So-called e-waste, named due to its electronic origins, is growing as new technology supersedes the old more rapidly than ever.

Add one-off events such as the change to digital television - which is expected to contribute to a doubling of such waste next year - and it's clear there's a mounting challenge to safely handle this form of visual and environmental pollution.

E-waste includes computers, printers, monitors, personal gadgetry and peripheral electronics, as well as everyday household items such as DVD players, tin openers and hair dryers.

The dilemma with e-waste is that the cost of recycling non-renewable materials to recover value can often be prohibitive - a result of lower returns because of slipping commodity prices - while dumping the waste in landfill poses a risk because toxic metals have the potential to leach into groundwater systems.

Forum of Regional Councils chairman Doug Thompson said that, as the main player in the waste-processing sector, councils were being challenged by the increase in e-waste.

"The difficulty for us is the sheer cost of collection," Mr Thompson told WA Business News.

"The last [e-waste collection] was done in conjunction with Apple, but if local government had to undertake that cost themselves that would be significant.

"Another thing is we actually don't have the facilities to recycle everything.

"Once it's collected it's another thing to actually have the industry there to recycle it and make use of it. In one sense local government is dealing with the lack of strategic planning at a higher level."

WA council experiences are reflected in a report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2006, which revealed e-waste in Australia was growing at a rate three times that of municipal waste.

The ABS reported 1.6 million PCs were being placed into landfill every year, while 5.3 million PCs were in garages or backyard sheds, and a further 1.8 million in storage.

According to a report titled 'Tipping Point: Australia's e-waste crisis', released in May by independent environmental organisation Total Environment Centre, more than 168 million items of e-waste are either already in landfill or on their way to being buried in the ground.

The Western Australian Local Government Association has previously told WA Business News that local councils were, on average, spending more than $150,000 a year to deal with e-waste.

One company specialising in this sector, Secure Computer Recycling and Disposal (SCRD), believes the e-waste problem is growing as a result of continual advancements of technology.

SCRD and rival, Sims Electronic Recycling, operate the only e-waste recycling plants in WA.

SCRD estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 tonnes of new equipment will be sold in the Perth metropolitan area this year, which effectively means the same volume of material will be made redundant.

The firm is expecting a spike in 2010 to as much as 7,000t because of the phasing out of the analogue TV network as consumers will opt to discard their traditional televisions in favour of new digital plasma or LCD screens.

Mobile telephones are another huge contributor to e-waste. Although there are significant recycling programs already in place for mobile phones, such as Mobile Muster, according to a consultation paper for a national waste policy released by the federal Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in May, less than 4 per cent of mobile phones are recycled.

The paper said that, in 2007-2008 about 8.87 million mobile phones, which have an average lifespan of 18 months, were imported into Australia.

Australia's environment ministers recently announced they were moving towards a national e-waste recycling scheme with a final decision to come in November.

The focus of the national scheme will primarily be on an extended producer responsibility (EPR) model, where manufacturers will carry the costs of recycling hazardous and non-renewable materials.

But Australian Internet Industry Association (WA) chair Shirley Routley said an EPR model would be difficult to establish.

"There's a lot of things that need to be thought through before you can make the manufacturers responsible," she said.

"You can do it on a voluntary basis, but then why would IBM do it if HP and Apple aren't?"

Ms Routley said container deposit legislation, where the consumer receives payment in return for recyclable goods, could not be sustainable because of falling commodity prices.

"The problem with giving money back is that it does still cost money to recycle," she said.

"The money the recyclers can get back, the market for that has diminished enormously. They're not actually getting anything back, so how can you pay somebody money for something that has intrinsically low value?"

One of Australia's largest computer recyclers, Project Greenbox founder Shaun Mulholland, said the national framework must focus not only on recycling, but re-use.

"The United Nations University published a study which says the re-use of IT equipment is up to 20 times better for the environment than recycling, so we should be trying to re-use as much as possible," Mr Mulholland said.

"Then, when an item really does reach its end of life through being too old, too slow, or through damage, then that item can be recycled; but not until that point.

"We really should be looking at how we can re-use as much as possible."

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