Nation of hoarders: 30 million PCs rot in Australia

What does last night's dinner have in common with your old PC? They get thrown out when their value flatlines. ZDNet Australia asks why Australians hoard old PCs.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer on

In 2008, seven million PCs will be available for recycling. Of those, just 500,000 will be recycled, 1.6 million will be sent to landfill, and the remaining 5.4 million PCs will collect dust in garages. ZDNet Australia asks why Australians treat old PCs like last night's leftovers by covering, storing and deferring the purge until the item's value flatlines.

Cracking the CRT

Digital relics die hard: 5.5 million waste away in garages
Credit: Liam Tung, ZDNet Australia

2007 should have been the year Australians seriously set about recycling their old PCs -- initiatives such as Sustainability Victoria's Byteback program were established, offering Melbournians free PC pickup and recycling, while state governments across the country imposed recycling clauses in procurement contracts.

2007 should have been the year -- yet over five million of them rest in the hidden wasteland of Australian garages, leaving PC-recycling businesses lacking PCs to recycle.

Recycling outfits such as MRI -- the company Dell uses to fulfil its promise to take back and recycle its end of life PCs -- remain supply-constrained, according to its managing director, William Le Messurier.

The supply problem could be solved if the five million PCs stored in garages around the country were sent or sold to recyclers, Le Messurier told ZDNet Australia.

Yet, if Australia suddenly woke up from its "store, defer and dump" slumber, the country would still lack the processing capacity to handle both the volume of PCs and certain types of toxic materials they contain.

"If we were able to access that, our industry would be flooded. It's scary," Le Messurier said.

Gold digger? If you can get a tonne of these you'll get AU$1,000

Le Messurier gets AU$1,000 per tonne for circuit boards.
Credit: Liam Tung, ZDNet Australia

There are a number of possible reasons why people hoard their PCs, ranging from a lack of financial incentive to force of habit but one thing remains certain: PCs will gradually lose their value if stored indefinitely, said Le Messurier.

"Putting a PC in storage is holding you back from getting more utility out of the product from its useful life. Storage is not really a good option, because it devalues the item and as time goes by it becomes less and less useful," he said.

The hoarding complex
So why do Australians keep hoarding PCs? Do we have a hoarding complex? Does the same mentality that causes people to wrap tonight's leftovers in plastic and wait until it expires in the fridge before binning it, cause them to cling to a PC until its value flatlines?

Francine Garlin, a marketing lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney who specialises in consumer psychology, said hoarding can be addressed if people understand the impact of their consumption and disposal choices.

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Mounting e-waste pressures

According to Environment Australia, between the years 1980 and 2011 Australians will have purchased 45 million PCs. Over that time 5.5 million will be stored and 7 million computers will have been recycled.

But the majority, 24 million PCs in total, will end up in landfill, representing 2.2 million cubic metres of waste -- enough to fill 1,000 Olympic swimming pools -- some of which is toxic and 30 percent of which is plastic.

In 1984 622,000 new PCs were purchased, with just 500,000 becoming obsolete in that year. But in 2011, 2.29 million PCs will be purchased while 2.25 million PCs become obsolete.

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