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.

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.

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.

"I think there could be a lack of awareness on the consumers' part -- about how they can recycle and why they should recycle PCs," said Garlin.

"Australia has tended to be reasonably good at recycling but the issue of government intervention is going to become more significant if we're going to be moving more quickly towards the goals we're trying to achieve as a society," said Garlin.

Garlin is optimistic recycling rates can be improved -- even in the absence of economic incentives.

"There's a growing awareness of exactly what PCs being dumped means in terms of the environment. We know that there is a lot of toxic material in PCs that are not good for the environment," she said.

PC manufacturers, following the example of some Scandinavian car makers, must take responsibility for the disposal of their brands, argues Garlin.

"[Manufacturers] need to be innovative in the way they address the issue of disposal. This includes looking at also ways in which they try and promote this as a benefit to the consumer as well. That's only going to be a benefit if they tap into consumer's motivations," she said.

To an extent, this form of "product stewardship", whereby a manufacturer takes responsibility for their products through better design and disposal, has occurred in Australia via Victoria's Byteback program. HP, FujiXerox, IBM, Fujitsu, Epson, Dell, Canon, Apple, Lexmark and Lenovo contribute to it by funding the recycling of their own products under the program.

Can Australia salvage the wreck? See page 2.

However, programs like this only address part of the problem, according to MRI's Le Messurier, who believes a tougher regulatory approach is required.

"Unfortunately the government hasn't regulated in this country to ensure there is a compulsory diversion from landfill, so we're still getting low recycling rates because the Australian consumer doesn't like the concept of paying for their recycling fees at the end of the product's lifecycle -- they want to pay it up front."

According to IT body the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA)'s Byteback representative Josh Millen, greater regulation is exactly what's needed. Achieving a system which ensures PCs do not end up in landfill will require the involvement of Australian Customs, in conjunction with state and local governments. In effect, a national approach to the problem of e-waste.

Millen told ZDNet Australia that Byteback -- which is planned to end this year -- would like to see a national registry established, with hardware imports recorded by Customs so that PC manufacturers exporting goods to Australia can be tracked, in turn supporting the efforts of programs such as Byteback.

"Our main goal is developing appropriate safety net legislations and looking at a model for Customs to establish a national register and how Byteback would work under that," said Millen.

Salvaging the wreck
PCs lose value in storage because the most valuable item to take-back schemes is a working PC. After this come parts, such as CRT or LCD monitors, and salvageable materials such as steel or gold.

Cracking the CRT

MRI staff slice open CRT screens to salvage parts.
Credit: Liam Tung, ZDNet Australia

Today MRI receives AU$10 for every CRT screen it exports, representing a windfall of AU$200,000 per year but soon this window will close on the company, said Le Messurier.

The increasing availability of better quality consumer technology in MRI's export markets, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, China and some African countries, have caused consumers to turn away from these inferior goods.

"That gate will close over the next few months because our Asian neighbours are getting more discerning in their use of technology," he said.

After assessing the reusability of PCs, components containing metals are sorted and sent to South Korea. A low value circuit board, which contains steel and "a bit of gold", according to Le Messurier, attracts a price of AU$1,000 per tonne.

Staff use the board to separate low and high value items

Staff use the board to separate low and high value items.
Credit: Liam Tung, ZDNet Australia

"If you clean it up you could get more, but labour costs more than it's worth so we'd rather send it to a circuit board recycler in Korea," he said.

Australia also lacks the facilities to recycle certain toxic materials. Under Byteback, lead from CRTs is sent to the Netherlands, heavy metals from batteries are sent to France, printed circuit boards are sent to Canada, and LCD screens are sent to the US.

Although sending materials offshore for processing has been criticised due to the harmful effect that transport can have on benefits from recycling, Byteback claims that none of its non-recyclable materials are sent to developing countries with less stringent environmental regulations than Australia.

But to its credit, Byteback does divulge what materials need to be processed offshore, which company does the work and why -- an action that Dell, which claims the title "the greenest IT company in the world", is yet to take. And if UTS's Garlin is correct -- in saying that people will become more receptive to recycling PCs when they understand the impact of their decisions -- perhaps this type of transparency, along with government intervention, consumers will see the sense in waking up from the hoarding slumber to subscribe to the new mantra: reuse, recycle and reduce.