Taking control of e-waste
Electronic waste or ‘e-waste’ is one of the fastest growing waste streams in Australia. It has been reported to be growing at three times the rate of municipal waste, mainly a result of technological change, shorter life spans of equipment and increased consumption.
Around 37 million computers and 17 million televisions may already be in landfill or destined for them. In addition, The Department of Water, Heritage and the Arts has estimated that if current rates of collection and recycling remained static, in 2028, approximately 44 million televisions and computers would be discarded in that year.
The wasteful aspects of this are not the only concern; electronics contain a range of toxic materials and it has been estimated that they account for up to 70% of the toxic heavy metal leachate found in landfill. A list of these materials is shown in Table 1.
Given the quantity and toxicity of e-waste, electronic equipment poses a serious threat to the health and sustainability of the environment.
What is the solution?
Companies such as Buyequip follow the recycling hierarchy, re-using products whenever possible and recycling equipment that can no longer be re-used.
While the economic benefits of reuse are obvious the environmental benefits shouldn’t be understated. It has been estimated that to make one computer system, over 240 kg of CO2 are emitted, and 1500 kg of water and 22kg of chemicals are used. Based on these figures, for the 4.5 million new PCs that were sold in 2007/08 in Australia, this equates to 1.08 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, 6.75 million litres of water and 5.1 tonnes of chemicals (interestingly, in 2007, Swaziland’s national CO2 emissions figure for 2007 was 1.06 million tonnes). Clearly, re-use has its benefits; however, equipment needs to be recycled responsibly when it is obsolete or no longer working.
While the re-use/refurbish IT industry is a well-established one, the nascent electronics recycling industry has developed over the past four years and is set to rapidly develop over the coming years. Electronics contain valuable materials such as metals and plastics while also containing less valuable commodities such as silica. The average composition of a computer is shown in Figure 1.
Electronics recyclers seek to recover as much of this material as possible and recycle it into other products, including closed loop recycling (ie, CRTs into CRTs), though it should be noted that the composition of materials is changing with new technology eg, CRTs to LCDs.
The two main methods of recycling electronics are shown in Table 2.
From here the separated commodities are recycled through various processes including metal re-melting, plastics grinding, extrusion and moulding and glass crushing and re-processing.
Whichever way electronics is recycled it is a growing industry and, given the quantity of waste, it will continue to grow into the future, particularly under the proposed product stewardship scheme.
E-waste legislation and product stewardship scheme
The National Televisions and Computers Product Stewardship Scheme is set to be introduced in September 2011 to increase the recovery of electronic resources and limit the amount of waste going to landfill. The scheme was initiated by industry, Product Stewardship Australia (PSA) and the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA).
Josh Millen, National Policy & Program Manager, Sustainability for AIIA, says that since the early 2000s, a group of responsible manufacturers from the television and ICT industries lobbied the federal and state governments for a national e-waste collection and recycling scheme.
“The AIIA and PSA also lobbied the EPHC for a national framework, including regulation to ensure a level playing field for all industry participants and that a Product Stewardship Organisation (PSO) is created to streamline industry obligations,” says Millen.
“More importantly, this approach is about ensuring the community has reasonable access to dispose of their end-of-life equipment knowing that it will be responsibly collected and recycled to achieve the best environmental outcome.”
The federal government has responded by establishing a national framework underpinned by product stewardship legislation to ensure that all manufacturers/importers are included in the scheme and that there are no ‘free riders’. The Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC) agreed that televisions and computer products will be the first products covered under the co-regulatory product stewardship legislation.
The proposed starting point for the scheme in September 2011 includes:
- Industry will cover the cost of the scheme, including collection, recycling and education programs;
- Industry is responsible for the treatment of waste (including orphan and legacy waste);
- Liable companies will pay proportionate to their importation quantities based on customs import data; and
- Companies that import or manufacture fewer than 5000 TVs/computer products will be excluded from the scheme.
The goal of the scheme is to increase recycling rates to 80% by 2021. The government estimates that recycling levels are currently 10%.
The administration of the scheme will broadly take the following form:
- Funds from liable importers/manufacturers will be collected by entities such as the PSO.
- The PSO will then contract recycling service providers for the collection, transportation and recycling of eligible products, provided they meet the following criteria:
a. E-waste recycling standards
b. Competitive pricing
c. Infrastructure capacity
- The legislation allows for liable parties to set up and administer their own approved take-back/recycling scheme.
- The scheme will be overseen and enforced by a government regulator.
John Gertsakis, Executive Director of PSA, believes that the key to a permanent national e-waste scheme that delivers significant environmental benefit is the efficient operation of an industry-driven PSO. “By having producers and suppliers work together in a cooperative manner through a PSO, the scheme is able to deliver a seamless recovery and recycling service to the community. The benefits of a PSO-driven approach to implementing the scheme will also allow industry to put in place robust standards and processes to ensure that all contractors and service providers perform to very high levels, and that environment and OHS priorities are consistently addressed.”
The scheme and legislation is a proactive and positive undertaking and will assist the effective management of one of the fastest growing and most problematic waste streams in Australia. It will allow the electronics recycling industry to grow and mature and demonstrates that manufacturers, the government and e-waste recycling companies are committed to ensuring that the digital age is a sustainable one.
By Jamie Miller, who is a recently appointed Director of Buyequip, an electronics recycling and IT remarketing company. He has been involved in the e-waste industry since 2004 and has degrees in Sustainability Science and Political Science from the ANU. Awarded a scholarship in a Master of Science and Technology Commercialisation at the University of Adelaide in 2007, where he also founded two resource recovery companies and served on the Environment Committee of the SA Chamber of Commerce.
Case study: E-waste recycling - Ipswich City Council
Since April 2009, Buyequip has undertaken e-waste recycling for the Ipswich City Council and has recycled 244,331 kg of material for them at its processing facility, 2.5 km outside of the Brisbane CBD.
Buyequip recovers over 98% of materials through manual disassembly, which has been demonstrated to be more efficient at recovering materials than automated shredding and sorting systems. Plastics are separated, sorted and crushed with Buyequip machinery, metals are separated into copper, steel, aluminium, etc, and the processed commodities are then sent to specialist commodity recyclers.
80% of the waste collected comprises televisions which are problematic and expensive to recycle due to heavy leaded glass tubes. Buyequip has recycled almost 10,000 televisions since April 2009 and the tubes are sent to Adelaide for processing and then sent to be remanufactured into new CRTs. This process is expensive; however, Buyequip is committed to achieving the best possible environmental outcomes for e-waste for their clients and the community.
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