E-Waste in Australia an Overview
The disposal of televisions, computer products, and other electronic devices in an environmentally responsible way is becoming an important issue due to the increasing proportion of landfill being filled by electronics. Sending electronics to landfill wastes raw materials that could be recycled and runs the risk of hazardous substances being leached into soil and water sources. In 2011-12, an estimated 29 million televisions and computers across Australia reached their end-of-life. Those sent to landfill contained valuable materials that can be recycled and re-used, as well as substances which are hazardous to humans and the environment when disposed of inappropriately.
Televisions and computers contain valuable non-renewable resources including gold, steel, copper, zinc, aluminium and brass. The amount of gold recovered from one tonne of electronic scrap from personal computers is more than that recovered from 17 tonnes of gold ore.
Additionally, televisions and computers contain hazardous materials such as lead, cadmium and mercury, which need to be managed in an environmentally safe manner. Despite these concerns, many computers and televisions end up being disposed with household rubbish and sent to landfill.
The process of computer and television recycling entails the breaking down of the product into its various components (ie. plastics, metals, glass, etc), where 95-98% of these materials can be fully recycled for future use. Examples include:
• Circuit boards which can be shredded down to a fine powder and separated into plastics and precious metals which are able to be used for items ranging from jewellery to computer chips
• Plastic casings that can be turned into pellets and used for resins for new products or fuels
• Scrap metals which are melted down to form new metal-based components.
Many e-waste products contain hazardous materials that requires special handling. For example, the glass in CRT televisions contains a high concentration of lead and needs to be crushed, separated and cleaned in a contained environment. The recycled lead can then be used as flux material to remove slag from newly mined lead, and the glass can be used in the manufacture of new televisions and computers.
The safe disposal of CRT televisions is a growing issue with the progressive closure of the analogue signal across Australia. In those places where the analogue signal has already been shut down there has been a significant increase in the disposal of CRT televisions. Therefore, it is important that we manage this waste in an environmentally friendly way.
The international movement of hazardous waste is managed by the Basel Convention, an international treaty designed to reduce and regulate the movements of hazardous waste. The Basel Convention was brought into force in 1992 and over 170 countries have joined the convention, including Australia who became a signatory in 1992.
Australians are among the highest users of technology, and e-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams.
The cumulative volume of televisions and computers reaching the end of their useful life is expected to reach 181,000 tonnes or 44 million units by 2027-28. Every year, Australians buy more than 4 million computers and 3 million televisions.
Older televisions that contain Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT) have more than 2 kilograms of lead and account for the largest source of lead in the waste stream. Flat screen televisions contain less lead but more mercury, which is another hazardous material that needs to be disposed of correctly and not sent to landfill.
If 75% of the 1.5 million televisions discarded annually were recycled there would be savings equivalent to 23,000 tonnes of CO2, 520 mega litres of water, 400,000 gigajoules of energy and, 160,000 cubic metres of landfill space.
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