Keeping electronics out of landfill

Burning wire

Jeff Angel, executive director of the Total Environment Centre, describes the complicated process of getting e-waste recycling happening in Australia.

We can see the discarded TVs and PCs on the verge and we know there are lots of old computers and monitors at the back of the office along with retired mobile phones in the drawer. And there are millions of batteries in consumer products. We know they contain important resources such as rare earth minerals and that the plastic, lead and glass can be recycled. Yet there are over 230 million electronic items in or on their way to Australian landfills. So how do we stop this mountain of waste?

Until recently Australia did little to recycle e-waste—the bigger items and their peripherals. There were voluntary schemes where you had to pay when you got to the collection centre. Some councils began drop-off days—and the flood of materials was astounding. Developing producer responsibility in Australia has been slow, with tepid approaches endorsed by bureaucrats and industry, and feel-good media releases from ministers wanting to appear to be doing something.

A complication has been the desire to have a national regime rather than starting off independently at the state level. The force of federalism is strong despite several states such as NSW having strong product stewardship laws and promising action. Consequently, environment ministers met interminably—discussing proposals for studies, receiving reports on trials, issuing communiques.

This was the policy landscape for e-waste during the early 2000s. However, a campaign by the Total Environment Centre and Environment Victoria over seven years finally brought the issue to a crunch point.

Initially, industry was resistant—some didn’t like green regulation and some wanted to protect the market differentiation they gained from brand-based recycling schemes. An understandable requirement of industry associations is that there should be no free-riders; otherwise, those that are participating, with a cost burden, believe they are at a competitive disadvantage to non-participants. There is also the usual opposition to adding a (small) additional cost into the price of products to cover the recycling program.

A combination of media and public information programs by environment groups, actions outside recalcitrant departmental offices, the use of social media to lobby ministers, as well as the release of recycling plans based on successful overseas models, eventually brought the problem to a decision point.

Read the full article in ReNew 123

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