Solving the growing problem of electronic waste

Every year, Australians throw away gadgets and gizmos aplenty. The cost is twofold ­– our unwanted phones, computers and TVs can harm the environment, while valuable materials that could be reused are lost. Yet with e-waste set to be banned from landfill in Victoria from July 2019, a new era of recycling has begun, and TAKE2 members are among the businesses setting the trend.

“In Victoria alone, we have recycled more than 31,000 tonnes of e-waste,” says Warren Overton, CEO of the Australian and New Zealand Recycling Platform (ANZRP), which manages the free national service TechCollect. It’s estimated the steel recycled from this volume would be enough to build seven Melbourne Star observation wheels.”

Having grown steadily each year, the total amount of e-waste recycled through TechCollect since 2011 now tops 130,000 tonnes. A network of 100 collection sites across the country also means the service is available to people living outside major cities, including remote communities in regions such as Arnhem Land.

Warren sees the Victorian ban as a potential game changer. “Firstly, from a sustainability perspective, it will ensure e-waste that was otherwise destined for landfill is recycled – this is a win for the environment,” he says. “Secondly, it will benefit the e-waste recycling industry by creating scale, allowing for larger and more efficient operations to process e-waste collections.”

“Thirdly, it will create jobs, because as the processors scale to accommodate an increase in volume, their need for labour will grow. Finally, it will reduce the level of confusion that currently surrounds e-waste, by providing a channel for collection that does not discriminate between computers, fridges, or any other electrical materials.”

The fact that e-waste is such a broadly defined category, encompassing any item with a plug, battery or cord, has long added to the complexity of the problem. Ahead of the ban, Sustainability Victoria is running a campaign to better educate the public, in addition to funding upgrades to collection and storage facilities across the state.

Meanwhile, big brands continue to engineer cutting edge solutions of their own. TAKE2 member Fujitsu Australia has had a policy of zero e-waste to landfill since 2009. In a recent blog post, Sustainability Manager Blaise Porter explained how the company uses self-managing smart bins to make recycling more convenient for its customers:

“It’s equipped with an IoT sensor that monitors fill levels, and when the bin is full, it engages a fully automated process that retrieves a job number from our e-waste processing partner and books its own collection job with a courier.”

In the last 12 months, Fujitsu’s smart bins have diverted more than three tonnes of e-waste from landfill, in addition to what was collected across the company’s warehouse, data centres and offices. “In 2017-18, we processed more than 380,000 kilograms of e-waste from our own, and our customers’, business operations,” says Blaise.

Importantly, Fujitsu ensures its own products can be taken apart easily at the end of their life, and the components reused. “We avoid using glues, adhesives, and fused parts that prohibit repairs and complicate disassembly for recycling,” says Blaise. “Our product designers conduct regular study tours to recycling centres, to gain feedback from staff. More than 90 improvements to our products have been made because of these exchanges.”

In a further sign that the battle against e-waste can be won, ANZRP partners with more than 50 leading organisations. “They understand their shared responsibility to mitigate the environmental impact their products have throughout their life cycle, including end of life management,” says Warren, adding that product stewardship agreements are helping to cut waste and pollution across the economy.

Of course, one way to deal with your own e-waste is to try and avoid creating it in the first place. Regardless of what action you take, just make sure it counts by updating your TAKE2 pledge.