What happens to e-waste in Australia?
Diverting electronic waste from landfill offers enormous environmental benefits. Here’s how to recycle TVs, tools, tablets and more.
What happens to old mobile phones, smashed up tablets and broken power tools when we no longer need or use them? It’s pretty simple: they go in the bin and end up in landfill, or they are recycled.
Obviously, recycling e-waste, or electronic waste, at the end of its life is the better option. Especially when you consider Aussie consumers create a whopping 520,000 tonnes of e-waste each year – about 20.4 kilos per person.
“It’s up there with North America,” says John Polhill from Sustainability Victoria. “Unfortunately, we’re punching above our weight in e-waste generation.”
If e-waste ends up in landfill, it can harm the environment and contribute to the non-sustainable use of resources.
We’re the first to admit recycling e-waste takes a bit of effort, but the payoffs are well worth it.
What happens to e-waste when it goes into landfill?
When e-waste ends up in landfill, its doesn’t break down or emit greenhouse gases in the same way as food waste. But most e-waste contains hazardous materials such as lead, mercury, CFCs and flame retardants that can cause contamination and even fires in landfills.
This contamination can also make us sick, explains Dr Trevor Thornton from Deakin University’s Faculty of Science, Engineering & Built Environment.
“When the item gets thrown into the landfill, those heavy metals can start polluting the groundwater and soils, and if humans or other animals get access to it, it can have fairly major health impacts.”
Chucking away e-waste also means chucking away non-renewable natural materials such as tin, copper, nickel and silver that we go to a lot of trouble to dig out of the ground. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. And, of course, there’s the fairly epic environmental footprint of all that mining.
How does e-waste get recycled
Recycling e-waste is a bit more complicated than paper or plastic. Depending on the type of device, the first step is manual disassembly. Batteries, steel casings, plastic and heavy metals are separated out. Next, everything is sent to the shredder and all data is destroyed.
“When recyclers break down e-waste into individual components, they collect the mercury, lead, gold or whatever, as well as the plastics, and recycle them,” Dr Thornton says. “Everything gets broken down and recycled.”
Raw materials are then processed and sorted, before being resold to suppliers to make new products like keyboards, toys, jewellery and TV screens. These new products can be recycled in what’s known as the ‘circular economy’.
The goal is to make new products from recycled materials in a closed loop without relying on raw materials.
Ban on e-waste
So important is recycling e-waste that Victoria, South Australia and the ACT have banned it from being sent to landfill, and there’s pressure on other states to follow suit. As a result, 54% of Aussie e-waste is recycled.
Where do you take e-waste so that it can be recycled?
Australia doesn’t have a national e-waste recycling scheme, so accessing the hodgepodge of services in your local area can take a bit of effort.
“Where I live, if I want to get rid of e-waste, I can go to the local transfer station, which is not too far away,” Dr Thornton says. “At the local supermarket, I can drop off batteries. If I want to recycle my phone, I might have to go to Officeworks. It’s not an easy process.”
But recycling e-waste is almost always free. B-cycle is Australia’s official recycling scheme for batteries and the digital map will locate your nearest drop-off point. Planet Ark’s Recycling Near You tool lets you search by location and material. Then there are local councils and waste transfer stations – give them a call if you’re unsure where to take your e-waste.
What should you do with old power tools?
Discarded power tools are one of the biggest sources of e-waste for contractors. “The battery-powered power tool has now vastly overtaken corded power tools as the performance is better,” Polhill says. “The batteries are getting smarter, and the problem is that they can be very difficult to recycle.” Some recyclers accept power tools and batteries, and retailers like Bosch run free product take-back systems.
Dr Thornton says there are business benefits to be gained from recycling e-waste and promoting your endeavours as customers increasingly value eco-initiatives. Plus, he says, it may soon become a requirement on building sites.
“It may not be too long before the regulators decide to focus on it a bit more and go around to building sites,” he says. “If you get ahead of the game before that happens, you won’t have a problem.”