Your broken computer is in China’s garbage dump

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This article appeared in the 23rd June, 2008 issue of CRN magazine.

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Your broken computer is in China’s garbage dump
There’s no doubt that Australia loves technology. As we continue to consume the newest gadgets in our quest to possess the latest and greatest products, we continue to amass mountains of electronic waste – waste which often contains toxic materials hazardous to the environment.

So where does all of Australia’s unwanted computers and IT waste go? Although the majority of Australians are dedicated recyclers successful at making sure simple waste such as glass, aluminium and paper receive the proper treatment they need, e-waste presents
a whole new host of problems.

The difficulty with e-waste is that it’s made of so many different and often toxic components. Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic are used in electronic equipment, which when left untreated can leach from landfill tips into the water table and damage delicate ecosystems.

Australia lacks a co-ordinated government-backed national program. Because of this, much of Australia’s national e-waste solution is to hide it.

The sad truth about e-waste recycling is that the processes involved are prohibitively expensive. Because of the inherent difficulties in extracting both valuable and hazardous materials from e-waste, it’s infinitely cheaper to sell waste to developing countries.

But as with all issues of the environment, e-waste and its adverse effects are not confined to local geographies. How Australia chooses to dispose and treat its waste has a profound effect on the rest of the world, and shipping it overseas compounds, rather than alleviates, the environmental stress our planet already undergoes.

The practise of exporting e-waste to developing countries is a long and sordid tale. As electronics increasingly become part of our throw-away culture, amounts of e-waste have dramatically increased, while solutions to the problem lag behind.

Global efforts to address the e-waste problem have invariably failed through poor regulation. Even in the European Union (EU) where waste regulation is quite stringent, some 75 percent of all e-waste remains unaccounted for. An estimated 8.7 million tonnes of e-waste is created annually in the EU and a massive 6.6 million tonnes of e-waste is not recycled.

In the US, the story is even worse. Because there is very little regulation, less than 20 percent of US e-waste is recovered for recycling. Figures for Australian rates of recycling aren’t much better. It’s estimated that even though seven million PCs will be available for recycling in 2008, only 500,000 will be recycled, 1.6 million will be sent to landfill, and the remaining 5.4 million will collect dust in garages.

If you don’t like the idea of millions of tonnes of e-waste rotting in your backyard, then spare a thought for the developing countries that receive our waste through financial necessity.

While statistics on the amount of imported e-waste are inevitably incomplete, available numbers show an increase in First World garbage shipped to China via Hong Kong from 2.3 to three million tonnes per year from 1998 to 2002. This small example shows that as a developed country we are not prepared to deal with our own rubbish.

Despite advocacy groups and the United Nations exposing the perils of such practice, we continue to do it. The most prominent UN treaty to regulate the sale of e-waste to poor countries is the Basel Convention which was initiated in response to outrage at the international trafficking of hazardous waste. Adopted in 1992, the convention has been ratified by more than 150 countries including Australia.

But Australia’s involvement in the Basel Convention is not as commendable as it appears. According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), an advocacy group focused on confronting the economic inefficiency of toxic trade and its devastating impacts, Australia has actively sought to undermine the Basel Convention by continuing to sell its hazardous waste to poorer nations. We join a growing list of countries on BAN’s hall of shame including New Zealand, Canada and the US.

While Australia’s Department of Environment and Heritage administers the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1989 which implements Australia’s obligations under the Basel Convention, its effectiveness has been undermined by parties intent on making a buck through the export of e-waste, often under the guise of aid or scrap metal recovery.

But aside from applying more pressure on the government, what else can we do to ensure we address the e-waste problem instead of giving it to someone else to deal with? A good starting point would be to address our e-waste problem before it gets to our backyard. Too often we wait until we have a waste problem before we even start to think about solving it. While it’s necessary to always maintain pressure on waste legislators, it’s also possible to seek solutions from the actual product designers. If we’re serious about addressing our waste problem, we need to start work at the design stage of a product’s life cycle to make sure it is not only environmentally friendly, but reusable.

The sooner we realise that our e-waste is our problem, the sooner we can move towards achieving true Green IT.
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