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Australia's giant e-waste recycling centre: Photos

The largest e-waste recycling centre in the southern hemisphere was opened this week in Sydney's Villawood amid controversy over the Federal Government's refusal to commit to a mandatory e-waste recycling policy.
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By Alex Serpo on
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1 of 9 Alex Serpo/ZDNet

Electronic waste, or e-waste, includes electronic goods such as phones, televisions, stereos, computers and printers. E-waste is world's fastest growing form of garbage.

The plant, which was opened by Sim's Recycling Solutions, a subsidiary of Sims Metal Management, has the capacity to process about 20,000 tons of e-waste every year. However, even at full capacity this is only a faction of the 120,000 to 140,000 tons of e-waste produced by Australians every year. Sims estimates that it is growing 3-5 times faster than other waste streams and only four per cent of Australia's e-waste is recycled.

Photo credits: Alex Serpo, ZDNet.com.au

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The Sims plant was opened by former Australian rocker and Minster for Environment Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett.

Garrett was drilled by the press on whether the Federal Labour Government intends to make the recycling of e-waste mandatory, however he did not directly take a stance on the issue. He said: "What I want to do is look at the best measures we can agree with states and also local councils to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill."

"The Commonwealth has signalled its intention to develop a national waste policy," he said. However the Minister did not give any time frame.

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3 of 9 Alex Serpo/ZDNet

"Everywhere else where we operate, to varying degrees, there is a legislative framework, which by and large ... [creates] a significant degree of producer responsibility," said Jeremy Sutcliff, Sim's executive director (pictured) in an interview after his speech. "That comes at a cost, and the cost may or may not come back to the consumer."

By everywhere else, Sutcliffe was referring to the EU, many states of the US, Japan and Korea, where recycling of e-waste is in "excess of 80 per cent".

"There is a significant business risk in this plant, in so far as if Australia doesn't legislate, that will not generate the flows of materials to make it a low cost operation," he said.

"I'm in part putting financial pressure on the government. They have written all these reports, and nothing happened. We have put the plant in, now [the government] has got no excuse, something has got to happen. "

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Peter Natcheaf, group sustainability general manager for Sims, said that the cost of mandatory recycling would be two to three Australian dollars per gadget, depending on the metal prices and the size of the gadget. Large telecommunications equipment brought a much better return that just an iPod, Natcheaf said. As there is no electronics manufacturing in Australia, Natcheaf suggested such a fee could be collected at customs.

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5 of 9 Alex Serpo/ZDNet

This is what a thousand shredded desktops look like.

The plant is able to recycle 98 per cent of all materials in electronic goods, including valuable metals such as iron, copper, gold along with plastic and glass.

However the plant is unable to process batteries, and there is currently no plant in Australia able to do so.

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E-waste can also contain a range of toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium (found in batteries), lead (in glass) and mercury (found in lamps). Heavy metals can cause cancer and nerve paralysis, along with various other ailments.

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The advent of wireless comes at a cost.

Natcheaf says that 90 to 95 per cent of the material that the plant processes comes from large corporations. These include HP, IBM, Apple, Ricoh, Nokia, Cisco and Sun Microsystems.

Natcheaf said corporates turn over systems much faster than consumers, who take six to seven years from shelf to recycling plant.

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8 of 9 Alex Serpo/ZDNet

Here a plant worker prepares a desktop for shredding. During the recycling process first glass is manually removed, and then the whole component is shredded. Then a series of rotating drum magnets sort out metal from plastic.

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Here a conveyor belt spews shredded metal separated by the drum magnets into a giant collection bag.

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