A toxic legacy

Ghanians working at an e-waste dump in Agbogbloshie, a suburb of Accra, Ghana.

Mountains of e-waste continue to grow, and much of it is still ending up in landfill. Kirsten Tsan looks at what’s happening here to address the problem.

Australians are among the most prolific technology users today—and some of the most wasteful. From 2007 to 2008, an estimated 15.7 million computers reached their ‘end-of-life’ in Australia, but only 1.5 million were recycled. The rest went to landfill.
E-waste is any electronic equipment that requires electric currents or electromagnetic fields in order to function that has reached the end of its useful life. Up to 2011, we were sending over 90% of our e-waste to landfill, endangering not only the environment, but ourselves; computers and televisions contain materials that are hazardous to humans, such as lead, cadmium, mercury and zinc.

Worse, we were wasting the materials in this electronic junk—the majority of which could be fully recycled and used in other products. To give an example: the amount of gold recovered from a tonne of electronic scrap from PCs is more than can be recovered from seventeen tonnes of gold ore! These valuable and non-renewable resources are lost when they are thrown into landfill, and so are the resources that were used to make them, like water and oil.

National recycling scheme

To address these issues, in 2011 the federal government launched the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) under the Product Stewardship Act. The scheme states that the companies and businesses making computers and televisions are also, to a certain extent, responsible for funding their product’s recycling programs around Australia.

The NTCRS is a stepped implementation and will take place over a number of years. It started in 2012–2013, with the aim that industry would take responsibility for 30% of the collection and recycling of their products. The ultimate goal? By 2021–2022, industry will have taken 80% of the responsibility for the recycling of computers and televisions.

Before the NTCRS was launched, a 2010 report stated that industry funded 17% of the recycling for that year. In the first year of the scheme (2012–2013), a total of 40,813 tonnes were recycled by industry—98.8% of the scheme target and almost double the estimated levels of recycling prior to the introduction of the NTCRS.  In the latest report (2013–2014), out of 131,607 computers and televisions that reached their ‘end-of-life’ in Australia, industry was required to fulfil a 33% target (43,430 tonnes). By the end of the year, industry recycled 52,736 tonnes, which was 7% over the scheme target, and 40% of the total recycling that year—a marked improvement. Liable parties—the companies within the television and computer industry—were also reported by the Department of the Environment to have mostly complied with the scheme, with an impressive 99.2% complying in proportion to the weight of liable imports.

Read the full article in ReNew 133.