I have often wondered how life would have turned out if I had realised my schoolboy ambitions of becoming an airline pilot much like Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch me if you can. Unrealised dreams aside, the fork in the road of my life seems to have found the next most exciting career option - that of leading a young company that recycled a waste that didn’t exist prior to the invention of modern colour television. The epiphany was the realisation of how pervasive electronics has become and how wantonly wasteful society is in manufacturing already obsolete product, harming the environment and foregoing the recovery of scarce resources. While not the answer to world peace, I join an industry that rallies to make a difference in the recycling of electronic equipment.
An industry colleague, Russ Martin CEO of the Global Product Stewardship Council cites: “Because of its significance, the responsible management of end-of-life electronic equipment has been made a high priority by a broad range of states, provinces and countries.” The Basel Convention signed by over 178 of 189 countries furthermore draws attention to the need to minimise the movement of hazardous waste such as electronic waste between countries, especially to the third world. Martin adds, “Rising public sentiment on this matter in Australia has also led to the introduction of product stewardship regulation in 2011 requiring importers of electronic product to pay for the collection and proper recycling of end-of-life equipment and to provide consumers reasonable access to collection services. There is certainly an interest and will to be responsible.”
Electronic waste (e-waste) is a term that is used loosely to refer to obsolete, broken or irreparable electronic devices such as televisions, computers, computer monitors (flat screen and cathode ray tubes), laptops, printers, scanners and associated peripherals, wiring and mobiles. In my years in the industry, I have been incredibly amazed at the wonder of technology and innovation and its sheer volume. I recall standing in our first warehouse in Wetherill Park, NSW, wondering how we would ever fill 700 m2. Six years on and we are bursting at the seams in 15,000 m2 dealing with consumer, IT and telecommunication waste. The stories are similar for my industry colleagues as well. Sam Miller of PGM Refiners cites: “Within two or so years of establishing our business, we were forced to seek far larger fit-for-purpose premises, and this was before the launch of the Commonwealth Government’s National Product Stewardship Scheme for TVs and Computers.
“E-recycling continues to get bigger and attract new entrants primarily because of society’s desire to do things faster and the insatiable desire to own the latest gadget that responds to finger gestures instead of the ancient art of pressing buttons, or worse - dialling! From the humble Commodore 64 and the Motorola ‘Brick Phone’ to the latest tablet, smartphone and LED TV, the wave of new product is unending. At the same time, the intrinsic value of consumer electronic items is diminishing due to advances in materials design substituting cheaper materials for the higher value products used in older electronics,” says Miller.
Overconsumption aside, evolving product design and converging technologies are continually creating new challenges for the recycling industry. Rose Read, manager at MobileMuster, explains that due to nickel cadmium batteries being replaced by lithium ion batteries in mobile phones some years ago, the mix of components collected by MobileMuster has changed dramatically. “The volume of batteries and chemistry has changed significantly over the past seven years, where now 80% of batteries collected are lithium ion, rather than nickel cadmium,” Read said. “Likewise, as the life of batteries has improved the proportion of batteries to handsets and accessories has also dropped significantly,” she added.
“Changing material types and dematerialising means recyclers need to continually evolve their recycling and dismantling processes to optimise material recovery. In some cases, thinner and smaller products like smartphones and tablets are harder to dismantle and separate due to increased use of glues and embedding metals into plastics. Whether the end game will eventually be a single device or not, it is clear that recyclers need to work with product designers, chemists and material scientists to ensure the benefits of the latest technologies are also realised at the end of their life through material recovery and not just during their use,” she concluded.
The e-waste recycling industry, as the modern-day alchemists, faces a dynamic environment just like IT or mobile phone manufacturers. New products and technologies mean new recycling approaches and new methods of recovery. “We need to evolve and be smarter, recover more at a lower cost and be open, accountable and compliant,” said John Gertsakis, the chief sustainability officer with Infoactiv Group. “Recycling companies should no longer just be content with investments in mass materials separation, size reduction and recovering noble metals of platinum, silver, copper and gold. The next aspirational horizon may well be in delivering greater value in the supply chain for customers and a part of this is material recovery to a higher degree.”
There is greater interest in securing sources for rare metals (such as indium, yttrium and other iums) elements higher up in the periodic table which are rapidly depleting as we journey down the road of unsustainable consumption. The source of where we find these rare metals is in none other than China. Low-cost labour is not the only reason why China is the manufacturing capital of the world. Recyclers with value-add offers and the ability to invest in research and development will lead the way in capturing market share and inadvertently swallow smaller outfits that have limited capital, enterprise and footprint. Location, location, location and price are unfortunately poor strategies to adopt for success.
Adapting to the dynamic environment inevitably will result in either consolidation or collaboration as a recipe for long-term survival. While volumes keep increasing with the continuing rollout of product stewardship for televisions and computers, “it is not a given that recyclers will necessarily receive sufficient feedstock to keep their operations running”, says Gertsakis.
The Product Stewardship Act’s Regulations for TV and Computers not only specifies a collection target each year for liable parties (importers of IT/TV products), recycling must also achieve an 90% material recovery rate. There is, furthermore, an inferred requirement for co-regulatory arrangements (CRAs are government approved legal entities under the TV and computer regulations that represent TV and computer importers) to meet Australian standard AS/NZS5377 for the collection transport and recycling of such waste. Its application thus far by individual CRAs appears to be inconsistent with differing interpretations of what it means to be compliant to the standard. The underlying reason that gives rise to such a situation lies in the blurred line between where government responsibility stops and where CRA responsibility starts. Currently, the view of government is that CRAs, who may be commercial entities, are suitably responsible to establish and monitor themselves. “The position is a source of frustration to various recyclers who have made investments in environment, quality and health and safety systems only to see loopholes that permit volumes to disappear to lower cost. Such conditions do not bode well for the long term of numerous recyclers and their employees who have stepped forward to tackle the e-waste in Australia,” Gertsakis adds.
At face value, e-waste is reported to be the fastest growing form of household waste. There are mountains out there and a lot to be excited about. There is also gold in them there hills (or mountains), which interests manufacturing capitals such as in Japan, India and Korea. In reality, however, the lack of waste arising whether from an indifferent or uneducated consumer or from redirected volume does not bode well for the future of a vibrant e-recycling industry in Australia. Considerations such as the high cost of labour limit opportunities for recyclers to competitively export any innovation, technology and process internationally. Creativity in this industry is very much a requirement of survival because all that glitters is not necessarily gold.