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E-waste: spring clean your tech junk

Aussies recycle several million tonnes of computers, TVs, mobile phones and other e-waste every year, with the number set to skyrocket over the next decade. ZDNet Australia takes an extended look into what happens to your devices when you're done with them.

Aussies recycle several million tonnes of computers, TVs, mobile phones and other e-waste every year, with the number set to skyrocket over the next decade. ZDNet Australia takes an extended look into what happens to your devices when you're done with them.

  • The problem

    E-waste can be defined as electronic goods that have reached the end of their useful life. It can be a computer that you've replaced, a television with dead pixels or a mobile phone that's beyond repair. Continue reading

  • Keeping it out of the tip

    If a gadget is disposed of responsibly, it will be lucky enough to head to an e-waste recycling drive where it will enter the great circle of tech. Continue reading

  • Fighting ignorance and apathy

    One of the biggest barriers to effective e-waste management in Australia is education. Continue reading

  • Beating waste at its birth

    While some manufacturers have recycling procedures and practices in place at the end of the product life cycle, others are developing their products to make the dismantling and handling process safer, easier and more cost efficient. Continue reading

  • Making a difference

    So what can you do to responsibly manage your e-waste? Continue reading

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The problem

E-waste can be defined as electronic goods that have reached the end of their useful life. It can be a computer that you've replaced, a television with dead pixels, or a mobile phone that's beyond repair.

As a country, we're recycling more and more each year in terms of paper, plastics and glass, thanks to years of education and the implementation of recycling bin schemes around the country.

While the rise in general recycling is encouraging, the amount of e-waste dumped into landfill is set to multiply.

The analog to digital television switchover, more affordable computers and the rate at which new products and innovations are brought to market are all contributing to the e-waste epidemic.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nationwide e-waste production is growing at a rate of more than three times that of any other waste stream.

That's a frightening statistic, considering that we generate around 22.7 million tonnes of general household waste per year.

When e-waste is disposed of at the tip, it has no immediate effects besides unnecessarily clogging up a landfill. Over time and in large amounts, however, devices like laptops, servers and mobile phones decompose and leak harmful metals and chemicals into the ground.

Chemicals including cadmium, mercury and lithium, and heavy metals like lead all seep into the ground, with the potential to poison the water table and do serious harm to the community.

"If something like a mobile phone or a laptop goes into general landfill, then you've got a battery that will slowly break down over time. That breakdown can seep deep underground and has the potential to poison the water table with dangerous chemicals," warned Bruce Jackson, head of sales and marketing for e-waste recycler MRI Recycling.

Keeping it out of the tip

If a gadget is disposed of responsibly, it will be lucky enough to head to an e-waste recycling drive where it will enter the great circle of tech.

For example, once your phone has beeped its last, you can drop it into a Mobile Muster bin. Mobile Muster is the industry-funded recycling program for the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA).

In 2009, Mobile Muster recovered 122 tonnes of mobile phone components. That works out at 806,000 handsets and batteries.

Once you drop your old phone into a Mobile Muster tube, it is picked up and shipped to an e-waste recycling facility, such as MRI Recycling in western Sydney.

At MRI, the product is weighed and sorted into its various components. Batteries are separated, cases are removed and any other peripherals or accessories are dismantled.

After that, it's shipped to Melbourne, where it's fed into a smasher, which belts the living daylights out of your once precious companion.

A magnet pulls away as much of the precious metals as possible and a sieve sorts the rest.

Plastics are then melted down and made into new, ultra-dense fence posts. The plastics are forced into a machine that casts the posts and spits them out like thick spears.

Generally in the recycling process, electronics can either be separated carefully or smashed into a million pieces for recycling. The difference lies in how much of a product can be effectively reclaimed. If a product like a server, laptop or television is fed through the smasher, the pieces can't be harvested for re-use or re-sale. For example, a circuit board contains gold, silver and copper which, if dismantled, can be reclaimed easily. But if smashed, precious materials are contaminated by their inferior counterparts, and their value and potential for future use plummets.

So in the case of mobile phones, servers, laptops, televisions and other gadgets, circuit boards are sent offshore for further processing. Circuit boards contain a load of great swag including gold, silver, copper and plastic for re-use in new circuits and even precious jewellery. AMTA even roped several celebrities in to plug its phone bling in late 2007 as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.

Sometimes even reaching the circuitry isn't easy, and every product must be treated differently.

With a cathode-ray tube (CRT) television, for example, staff at MRI disconnect the plastic casing and make a small fracture in the compressed cylinder at the rear of the unit, causing it to depressurise. Once depressurised, the MRI employee will take an angle grinder to the side of the unit, exposing where the leaded glass is fused to the plastic. Rather than prising the glass from the unit by hand and risking injury, the recycler runs a steel wire around the unit and superheats it, causing the glass and plastic to separate their life-long bond. From there, the glass, plastic and circuitry can be separated and recycled accordingly.

Fighting ignorance and apathy

One of the biggest barriers to effective e-waste management in Australia is education.

Mobile Muster estimates that over 16 million disused or replaced phones are sitting in drawers all over Australia, with many users unaware that they can be recycled properly.

Although, Mobile Muster recycled over 800,000 handsets in 2009, the same year saw 7.86 million handsets imported into Australia. That's an annual recovery rate of only 8 per cent of handsets imported.

According to Mobile Muster's head of recycling, Rose Read, Australians upgrade their mobile phones once every 18 to 24 months, often with new contracts. The old phone often goes into a drawer at home as a backup in case the new one fails.

"The key is to give people the facilities to recycle easily. We need to make it so easy for people and they will do it. The community-based e-waste drop-offs that councils run are extremely helpful," said Clean Up Australia CEO Terri-Anne Johnson.

In her role at Clean Up, Johnson has been calling for a national standard of e-waste recyclers, to help consumers identify who can dispose of waste responsibly.

"There's no industry accreditation and we think that that's a major issue because there's a lot of people claiming to be able to recycle e-waste. We're very reluctant to get involved with anyone either MRI or [Sims Metal Recycling] because of that. We need that national standard," Johnson said.

Beating waste at its birth

While some manufacturers have recycling procedures and practices in place at the end of the product life cycle, others are developing their products to make the dismantling and handling process safer, easier and more cost efficient.

Computer manufacturers like Dell, Apple, Sony Ericsson and HP are building their products without adding harmful chemicals to the finished product including mercury, arsenic and poisonous flame retardants.

Johnson feels that it should be manufacturers picking up the tab for recycling and reclamation.

"What we're asking for is shared responsibility and shared costs. At the moment, the costs are all being worn by the waste industry for setting up the infrastructure, local governments for setting up the collections and the consumers who pay to have that item recycled," she said.

Johnson thought that adding a cost to manufacturers for recycling their products would place a greater emphasis on sustainable design, similar to how Apple, Dell and Toshiba approach their products. A great demonstration of sustainable design is the Sony Ericsson Naite — a phone built entirely out of recycled materials.

Bruce Jackson felt the same way, "I think [the cost of e-waste recycling is] a matter for the original equipment manufacturer to have a cradle to grave answer to their product itself. They've produced and sold the product, so realistically it should be their responsibility to dispose of it properly."

Making a difference

So what can you do to responsibly manage your e-waste?

Everyone can do their part, just by following a few easy tips.

  • Think before you chuck: is that television, phone or laptop really broken? Could you get some more use out of it? Better yet, could someone else?
  • Be responsible with your waste: if it really is time for it to go, move the gadget somewhere out of the way. Once you've got a bit of e-waste gathered up, either call someone in to haul it away for you, or find out if your local council is hosting any e-waste drop-off points in your area.
  • Ask questions: remember not to give your e-waste to just anyone. Ask them how they handle the material, what happens to it after you part ways and where do the pieces end up?
  • Buy responsibly: when you're looking to buy your new camera, phone or TV, do some research on how the product was made. Does it come from a responsible manufacturer?
  • Talk to others: almost everyone is likely to have some form of e-waste or another. Make sure they know how e-waste impacts the community, and that they can dispose of it responsibly.

So check your drawers, rummage through the garage and raid the storage space at home or at work, so you can do your bit to get e-waste to where it needs to be.

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