Where are we with e-waste recycling?
Author: Liam Taylor
We Australians love our electronics. However, this also means the volume of electronic waste is growing three times faster than any other waste stream in Australia. E-waste recycling solutions will represent a major part of the movement towards a circular economy in Australia. So where are we currently?
E-waste includes everything from TVs, computers and mobile phones to batteries, printer cartridges and kitchen appliances. For some electronics we’re not doing too badly. Around 60,000 tonnes of TVs and computers were recycled in 2016-17 through organisations like TechCollect, representing a recycling rate of over 50%. Not bad considering we were achieving just 10% about a decade ago. Mobile phones are also experiencing positive recycling outcomes, with MobileMuster reporting a recycling rate of 68.5% last year. However, when it comes to handheld household batteries, which does not have a product stewardship program, we’re hovering at around 5% or less. Not to mention the booming consumer demand for lithium-ion batteries used in energy storage and electric cars, and resulting waste.
There is a growing need to for product stewardship schemes that ensure e-waste is effectively recycled, which in turn will help consumers do the right thing with their electronics.
Reduce before recycle!
Before replacing dated electronic products, take a moment to first consider whether you really need the updated version or if you could live without it. If you personally no longer want or need the item, find out if it could be re-used by friends and family or refurbished by the manufacturer and made available to lower-income communities. Local charity groups also often accept older electronic products.
The tendency to continually update our electronics is the primary reason the volume of e-waste we produce in Australia is climbing so rapidly and there is little doubt we need a more sustainable model of consuming electronics.
Why recycle e-waste?
The real question is why wouldn’t you? E-waste contains a high amount of non-renewable resources such as plastic and precious metals including gold, silver, platinum, nickel, zinc, aluminium and copper. Recycling these materials prevents new electronics being made from virgin non-renewable sources while also preventing the products winding up in landfill where toxic materials can leak into groundwater, contaminate the soil, and even enter the food chain.
We are more than capable of recycling the vast majority of these materials. Almost 99% of computer and mobile phone components can be recovered and recycled.
What happens to e-waste?
E-waste collected for recycling is almost always manually disassembled and assorted into its various components. These individual materials such as cabling, circuit boards, glass, metals and plastics are then processed for use as raw materials in new products.
- Computers and accessories can often be refurbished and made available to lower-income communities. If this is not an option, individual materials such as cabling, glass, circuit boards and plastics are recovered and processed into raw materials.
- Mobile phones are disassembled into component parts, which are then transported to local and overseas recyclers for processing. The plastic can be made into shipping pallets and lithium extracted from the phones can be made into new batteries.
- Whitegoods such as fridges and washing machines have hazardous materials removed before being crushed and shredded for recycling.
- Electrical appliances such as DVD players, alarm clocks, cameras, toasters and radios could be repaired at reuse centres. Through recycling, many of the materials, including glass, copper, plastics, metals and precious metals, are recovered for further processing and eventual use in the manufacture of new products
These are just some of the uses for recycled e-waste materials. More innovative solutions such as using materials from recycled printer cartridges as a component in road surfacing are already on the market.
- Reuse by passing it on via digital platforms
- Repair via community reuse centres
- Recycle mobile phones through MobileMuster, TVs and computers through TechCollect and printer cartridges through Cartridges 4 Planet Ark.
- Sign up your workplace for a free mobile phone or printer cartridge collection box through MobileMuster and Cartridges4PlanetArk.
- Search RecyclingNearYou for more information on e-waste recycling generally and how to ensure particular electronic products get recycled.
- Support manufacturers who are taking responsibility via product stewardship schemes.