At T2 Environmental we sometimes stop and marvel at how much the world of technology and business communication has changed over the last few decades.

Twenty years ago a mobile telephone was as much of a novelty as a robot is today. Ten years ago, mobile phones had begun to be adopted by mums and dads and professionals as a more convenient way to keep in contact. Today, many of our kids get their first phones before they are even teenagers!

When you think about the sheer numbers of handsets that this revolution entails, the amount of zeros can make your head spin. With every new generation of phones becoming more useful and cheaper, and the product life cycle of these phones getting shorter and shorter as new releases are brought out, there are hundreds of millions of handsets out there now, with many in landfill or collecting dust in drawers.

Add to this the huge volume of tablets and laptops that have a very brief shelf life and the decline of traditional desktop computers and we have a growing electronic waste problem throughout the world. In the United States a federal agency identified that over four million tonnes of e-waste are making their way into landfill each and every year in that country alone, with the already huge number set to grow. In Australia e-waste is the fasting growing waste problem we have. Of the 15 million computers that were disposed of in 2008 only 10% of them were recycled.

Growing Problem of E-waste

As technology develops, the rate at which devices become outdated also grows. With new models of phones, tablets, and computers being introduced almost every month, it is no surprise that old models are being replaced, usually thrown away and generating what is known as e-waste or electronic waste.

Electronic waste is growing at an alarming rate. According to a report published by United Nations STEP (Stopping the E-waste Problem) programme, approximately 570 metric kilo tonnes of e-waste was generated in Australia in 2012 an average of 25kg per individual. In spite of the many e-waste recycling programmes in our country, most of the discarded electrical and electronic items including televisions, batteries, printers, computers, monitors and mobile phones are ending up in landfill.

The e-waste problem

There are several concerns with the growing amount of e-waste. As a fast growing contributor to our waste stream, the sheer volume of material reaching the landfill is one obvious problem. And importantly, many of these discarded products contain valuable resources like gold, copper, zinc and others which are non-renewable. Dumping these in landfills is an unsustainable practice.

On one hand, there are serious environmental issues as the materials in the electronic waste can be extremely toxic to the environment. Mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium are all in the components of electronic equipment, and they are all extremely undesirable when sent to landfill. These hazardous materials, many which require special handling, are entering the environment.The poisonous by-products of decaying phones and batteries leeching into the ground in landfill can potentially contaminate the groundwater and often make their way into the food chain.

As humans and other living beings come in contact with these toxins, they develop health problems; respiratory, developmental, reproductive and neurological.

The other major issue here is that we are continually depleting the resources available to manufacture the technology we are buying. These resources are extremely valuable and to simply throw them away into a hole in the ground really does not make any financial or environmental sense. Many of the materials that make up the components that continually evolving are non-renewable and only exist in finite quantities so it’s vital that we recycle them wherever possible.

Reduce, Re-use and Recycle

While we cannot completely avoid generating e-waste, we can ensure that we minimise the amount that ends up in landfill. Avoiding products that cannot be recycled, buying less toxic substitutes like biodegradable toners and inks, Lithium-ion batteries etc. and following the three R’s Reduce, Re-use and Recycle are simple steps possible at an individual level.

  • Whenever possible, repair equipment instead of throwing it away. Always choose durable, long-lasting products to reduce waste.
  • When buying new versions of laptops and tablets, consider donating the old ones to schools or local charities that might be able to use them. You might also be able to trade them in for store credit or sell them to companies that repair and sell refurbished computers.
  • Switch to rechargeable batteries and eco-friendly lighting options for all business needs.
  • Most councils offer free e-waste recycling services regularly or periodically.

Interesting developments

Researchers around the world are trying to come up with innovative technologies for recycling electronic devices. One such development by three British companies is an adhesive circuit board which is 90% recyclable. Here a recyclable thermoplastic substrate is used for the circuit board and the electronic components are joined to it using a conductive adhesive.

The whole board is exposed to water at near boiling temperatures for recycling. This high temperature softens the adhesive and the components can easily be scraped off and reused. While this technology, in its present form, cannot be used for devices that operate at high temperatures, it has already found buyers in the automotive industry.

Several companies have also perfected techniques to extract gold and other precious metals from used mobile phones, telecommunication devices and medical equipment. While some of these processes use strong chemicals, bio-leaching using certain kinds of microbes is also being studied as an alternative.

Legislation

Europe is known for it’s energy efficiency leadership on environmental issues. In fact, tough new legislation passed in the European parliament has made it illegal to dump e-waste from old phones, computers, TV’s and lamps into landfill. This has created a large new industry in electronic recycling and European countries are leading the way in recycling innovation right now. This is helping fuel the new economy and creating hundreds of jobs and opportunities.

While it remains to be seen whether Australia will follow suit with our own laws, we strongly believe in the social and environmental benefits that e-waste recycling can bring.

The Electronic Recycling Solution

A way around the problem of sending old electronics to landfill is the relatively new and innovative field of e-waste recycling. You can recycle around 90% of all materials in electronic equipment. Recycling will help avoid future greenhouse gas emissions, save energy and help conserve our precious natural resources. Aside from the obvious benefits of keeping the groundwater and the air free of chemical grade pollutants, e-waste recycling also helps conserve resources. Recycling means that the same resources don’t have to be mined again which means the supply chain is under less pressure to mine new materials.

There is an increasing number of recycling options for electronic waste throughout Australia now and throwing it away with your general waste really is criminal.

Australian recycling companies are starting to offer electronic recycling services and there are also some national recycling schemes such as the following:

  • Mobilemuster – Mobile phone recycling;
  • Cartridges 4 Planet Ark – Printer cartridge recycling
  • Australian Battery Recycling Initiative.

Businessrecycling.com.au is a great resource for finding recycling companies in your area. ElectricalRecycling.com.au is a new company offering e-waste recycling services in Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast

We are becoming much more innovative in finding ways to recycle all of the components that make up our technology and if we are going to find solutions for the future it is vital that this innovation continues to develop. You can help fund this innovation by ensuring that you recycle any of your electronic equipment in the future.