Australian recycling pilot could make e-waste history

A statewide recycling campaign may see the end of e-waste as landfill.

The campaign, organized by the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), will offer free vendor-agnostic recycling for business and individuals across the state of Victoria for 12 months as part of an industry-led initiative to salvage some of the 1.6 million computers dumped annually.

AIIA CEO Sheryle Moon said the pilot will be used to lobby the federal government to mandate compulsory nationwide e-waste recycling.

“We have engaged Sustainability Victoria (a Victorian government environmental initiative), the federal government’s Australian Greenhouse Office and the Department of Communications, IT and the Arts (DCITA) and many levels of federal government to push the idea nationally,” Moon said. “The federal and state governments have been very receptive to the idea and, together with our state [AIIA chapters], they are waiting on the results to deploy the campaign across Australia.

“The pilot has begun initial work and will be launched as a national-first later this month where it will run for about 12 to 18 months.” She said the “top ten IT equipment manufacturers” will participate and financially back the project, which will collect all brands of IT equipment.

Moon shrugged off suggestions that industry nonparticipants may gain financial benefits over those contributing to the campaign, noting that recycling “has benefits for everyone regardless of regulation or contractual environments”.

The pilot, drawn up over the past six months, is an extension of an 18-month e-waste recycling campaign between the AIIA, the Victorian government and a few industry members, which has added additional drop-off sites and broadened the project’s scope to accept all e-waste materials.

Moon said while state ministerial reshuffles have slowed the launch, federal and state governments have embraced the idea, which is part of the AIIA’s “greening of the industry”.

A spokesperson for one of the pilot’s participants, who did not wish to be named, rejected the concept of introducing a tax levy on the sale or manufacture of IT equipment to facilitate recycling, arguing his company has run successful recycling campaigns for about two years.

“[Our recycling campaigns] take back our own products for free and recycle other brand name products, so I would not support a tax in principle,” he said. He said “historical e-waste” such as discontinued or generic equipment is a bigger problem for recycling because it accounts for about 75 percent of the total e-waste dumped each year.

He said industry, government and users have a responsibility to employ initiatives, regulatory frameworks and purchase environmentally friendly IT products.

Co-regulated product stewardship schemes, which tie industry self-regulation with some form of government regulation, have been applied by the tyre and television industries. These industries proposed that governments develop a regulatory safety net to eliminate any competitive advantage gained by nonparticipants. An existing example of co-regulation is the support of the National Packaging Covenant by the Used Packaging Materials National Environmental Protection Measure.

The Environment Protection and Heritage Council (EPHC) stated in its 2005 – 2006 annual report that industry had indicated that a co-regulatory e-waste recycling approach between government and industry “may not eventuate and, [the EPHC] would not be averse to full regulation of the sector to ensure a level playing field”.

The hazardous materials contained in computers, including lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, beryllium and brominated flame retardants, pose a significant environmental threat according to the The University of Technology, Sydney Programmers’ Society. The group claims the most environmental hazardous substance in computers is lead, which is contained in the cathode ray tubes of old monitors and in circuit boards that use lead solder to affix chips.

“Lead [in] solder is even more likely to escape into the environment,” the group says.

“Although discarded electronics currently account for a few percent of the total solid waste, they contribute between 30 and 40 percent of the lead in the waste stream.”

The group’s Web site states that a small cathode ray tube contains 1.8 to 3.6 kilograms of lead, while the flame retardants are under “increasing scientific suspicion as possible carcinogens”.

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