With electronic devices such as computers, mobile phones and TVs becoming more and more ubiquitous in Australian society, there is an increasing need to ensure these products are disposed of responsibly. So how big is the problem of electronic waste is in Australia, and how are organisations and individuals helping to solve it?
What is e-waste? How much do we really throw out?
The term ‘e-waste’ refers to any product being disposed of that relies on electrical current or magnetism in order to function, or runs on batteries. This encompasses computers, mobile phones, TVs, sound systems and more, as well as electrical appliances such as fridges, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, etc. Clean Up Australia gives the balance between appliances and electronics as roughly 50/50.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians had discarded a cumulative total of 17 million televisions and 37 million computers in the years leading up to 2008, and yet we buy more than 4 million computers and 3 million televisions annually. The problem is, very little of this waste is recycled. According to the University of Sydney, only about 10% cent of old TVs, DVDs, computers and other electrical goods are recycled.
What makes e-waste so bad?
Due to the complexity of modern electronics, e-waste contains a myriad different chemicals and substances. This makes e-waste difficult to recycle and it also makes this kind of recycling far more important.
Many products contain harmful substances that, when sent to landfill, can leach into the soil and groundwater and have a negative impact on the food chain. These harmful substances include lead, used in cathode ray tubes (CRTs), which are a component of analogue televisions; non-degradable plastics; mercury from LCD displays; and battery acid. Such substances can also cause health problems to people in close proximity to landfill sites, making it even more important that e-waste is recycled in a responsible manner.
“The two grams of gold needed to produce one wedding ring could be extracted from just 10 kilograms of mobile phones. In comparison, you would need 10 tonnes of ore to extract the same amount of gold.”
Source: University of Technology, Sydney
There’s wealth in recycling
Interestingly, by not recycling Aussies may be collectively throwing away billions of dollars. A three-year research program, funded by the CSIRO, aims to identify the value in mining for above-ground resources and map ways that this recycling could be effectively achieved. There are two main reasons we should recycle metal waste, says researcher Dr Damien Giurco from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). “There is money in recycling and it is good for the environment,” he says.
What can we do to reduce our impact?
When buying, using or disposing of electronic and electrical devices, there are a number of things that you as a consumer can do to reduce your environmental impact. When considering which product to buy, look for products that are durable and as high quality as you can afford – they’ll usually last much longer and give you better performance than cheaper, disposable products.
Also try to buy from companies that utilise responsible recycling practices for their products. You can even avoid buying new products entirely by repairing or refurbishing products you already own (within reason) with the help of your friendly, neighbourhood internet search engine. When a product is finally beyond saving and you need to dispose of it, a little extra effort makes a big difference.
Find out where your nearest outlets are for some of the recycling initiatives mentioned above, and take your electronic waste there rather than dumping it. You can also save up metal components, such as old wiring, knives or tools, and then take them to a dedicated scrap metal recycler – many will actually pay you for your waste metal!
Whilst e-waste is set to become a much bigger problem in the coming years, there are comprehensive initiatives being put in place to recycle as much as possible. As a consumer, the best thing you can do is be responsible about buying, maintaining and recycling your devices – remember, lots of small changes add up to make a big difference!
Recycling Near You, an initiative of Planet Ark, has a terrific search function to help you locate recycling drop-off points in your state for just about anything. Give it a try here.