Thursday, October 2, 2008


Electronic waste
E-waste ... Dr Sunil Herat from Griffith University, pictured with a room full of discarded computers / Lyndon Mechielsen

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FINDING massive electronics assembly plants in Japan comes as no surprise. After all, it is one of the world's leading electronics manufacturing nations. What does jolt you, however, is the huge electronics disassembly plants.

Recycling laws in Japan, along with the highly industrialised European Union, are among the world's strictest. Here the three Rs – reduction, reuse and recycling – aren't merely environmental buzz words. Not only are they enshrined in legislation, they're part of the national mindset. This kind of political will appears sorely missing in Australia.

Product Stewardship Australia executive officer John Gertsakis says there is no clarity of vision from the Australian Government about what it wants to do about e-waste.

PSA is an industry association whose members include Toshiba, Dick Smith Electronics, Philips, Panasonic and Samsung.

"There's no sophisticated policy for dealing with e-waste on a national basis and this creates mixed messages from state and federal government about what they expect industry to do about recycling of consumer electronics," Mr Gertsakis says.
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"There's a lot of rhetoric from middle-level bureaucrats about how industry should be developing stewardship schemes and taking back their products but when it comes to the robust underpinning of this at a regulatory level, there is silence. Industry associations such as ours, the recycling industry, local governments and consumers are all ready and hungry to do this but the key policymakers are going very slowly."

While some states are trying to facilitate e-waste recovery and recycling, the common complaint from industry and environmentalists is that there is no sensible, coherent, national response.

"The issues are really basic ones," says Mr Gertsakis. "The EU has dealt with this. A growing number of US states are doing it. Japan has done it. Yet again, we are the laggard in this part of the world."

However, South Australian Environment Minister Jay Weatherill insists e-waste is of national and international significance.

"SA strongly supported putting e-waste on the agenda of the national Environment Protection Heritage Council, which is chaired by Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett," Mr Weatherill says. "Ministers are due to meet next in Adelaide for this national council later this year."

Mr Weatherill says the Environment Protection Authority is developing a new regulatory framework for waste management. This will involve an environmental protection policy being released for consultation.

But industry, consumer groups and environmental activists are frustrated by a snail's pace of government action.

Dr Sunil Herat, a senior lecturer in waste management at Griffith University, has been trying to get government to understand the urgency of the problem of waste stream toxicity.

"We've been having meetings with government about e-waste for four years now," says Dr Herat, "and it always amounts to just talk."

The spread of toxic e-waste is a rapidly expanding problem in Australia. Studies of consumer spending have shown steady increases in electronic goods purchases.

The Canon Consumer Lifestyle Index reported that Australians spent $5 billion on digital devices in 2007. The 2008 figure is expected to be about $6 billion.

This will have been spurred on by the Olympic Games, the first to be broadcast in high-definition, creating a huge demand for plasma and LCD televisions.

These usually replace cathode ray tube-type TVs, the leading cause of lead presence in municipal waste streams – and lead is the tip of the toxic e-waste iceberg.

Other toxic chemicals are brominated-flame retardants such as polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) and polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), each of which is found in older computer equipment.

In mobile phones and other e-goods, arsenic, beryllium, copper and zinc are used. These chemicals, poorly handled, can be occupational and environmental health hazards. Also, mercury, cadmium and other toxic materials can find their way into local waste streams or offshore to unregulated environments. Delhi is a prime target for the developed world's e-waste, as is Nigeria – where indiscriminate dumping and poor safety regulations put handlers at risk.

A lack of regulatory control over e-waste management makes Australia complicit in exposing foreign workers to toxic substances.

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