Comment: Upgrading Australia's attitude to e-waste


In 2011-12 only 10 per cent of the 29 million computers and TVs thrown out were recycled. How can Australia best tackle its e-waste legacy?

Australia’s switch from Analog to Digital TV will finally be complete on December 10th 2013. This has resulted in a lot of old CRT TV’s dumped on the roadside and then sent to landfill, joining a colossal amount of other e-waste that has been dumped during the last few decades.

According to a 2013 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics:

“Disposal of unwanted televisions, computer products and other electrical or electronic devices in an environmentally responsible way is becoming an increasingly important issue due to the increase in consumption of raw materials, taking up of landfill space and disposal of hazardous substances in areas where they could leach into soil and water.”

The Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) has found 14 kinds of heavy metals and toxic flame retardants in contaminated water draining from landfill sites in Australia including: arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, chromium and zinc as well as persistent organic pollutants which and can be highly toxic to both humans and the environment.

Mobile Phone Industry "Green Washing"

Of the millions of mobile phones sold in Australia relatively few have been recycled. I recently had a chat about this with Jon Dee, Co-Founder of Planet Ark and MD of the advocacy group Do Something!

Jon didn’t hold back when I asked him about what he thought of the Mobile Muster campaign run by the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, stating bluntly that:

“They have the contact details for every mobile phone customer in Australia, yet they won't SMS them the details of where they can recycle their mobile phones. One has to question why they won't do it. Until they do, the industry's scheme cannot be taken seriously and will be seen by some as a big green wash exercise”.

“If they were really serious about recycling, they would SMS every mobile phone user in the lead up to the busiest sales period of the year. It would cost them virtually nothing to do and it would ensure 100% awareness of mobile phone recycling outlets”.

(Note: please see the bottom of this opinion piece for a detailed response to Mr Dee's comments.)

Urban Mining to the Rescue?

While old circuit boards, mobile phones and computer parts may appear worthless they often contain valuable minerals, metals and rare earths. It is both more environmentally friendly and better business sense to extract these valuables from landfill and reuse them to make new products.

A report in the journal Nature earlier this year revealed that urban mining of e-waste:

“Old computers, mobile phones and the like - is far richer than natural deposits: a typical open-pit mine will yield between 1 and 5 grams of gold per tonne, but mobile-phone handsets can contain up to 350 grams per tonne of gold, and computer circuit boards up to 250 grams”.

In 2011 SBS Dateline reporters broke a shocking story revealing how e-waste from Australia and other nations was illegally being sent overseas to be dumped in Ghana. Since then the federal government and consumer electronics manufacturers have partnered to create the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) which began offering a free recycling service for TV’s and computers in mid-2012.

NTCRS hopes to reduce the amount of television and computer waste going to landfill and to increase the recovery of resources, boosting the recycling rate of these products from 17% in 2010 to 80% by 2021‐22.

Neerav Bhatt is a Polymath: UNSW Engineering IT staffer, Freelance Journalist, Photographer, Librarian, Environmentalist, Professionally Curious, Lifelong Learner.

A right of reply from MobileMuster

In response to John Dee's statements in this article MobileMuster would like clarify the following inaccuracies and assumptions:

  • The key challenge to mobile phone recycling is people's desire to hold on to their old mobile phones, not a lack of awareness of mobile phone recycling as suggested by Mr Dee.
  • Independent market research shows that awareness of mobile phone recycling is 82% and that over 80% of Australians keep their old mobile phones or pass them on to family and friends. The three main reasons they keep their mobiles is: 1) they want to keep a spare for back-up; 2) they feel they may need it, or it still functions, or has information on it; and 3) they are planning to recycle it but haven't yet.
  • This trend to keep on to old mobiles phones is a global phenomena not restricted to Australia. It means that very few mobile phones end up in landfill - less then 3%.
  • MobileMuster  - the mobile phone industry's official not for profit recycling program - is a global leader in recycling mobile phones, collecting 53% of available mobile phones in the past 12 months. Since it started in 1998 it has collected over 1,028 tonnes of mobiles including more than 7.7 million handsets and batteries, with a recycling rate of over 93% of materials.
  • The growth of  buyback programs for second hand mobile phones, which then export the handsets for reuse into developing countries, has also influenced Australians' recycling behaviour over the last three years. As a result, more old phones are being exported overseas for re-sale and are therefore are not available for recycling in Australia.  While this is positive insofar as it is increasing the useful life of the mobile phone, it does create numerous health and environmental issue for many countries, as reported by the WHO.

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