Australians are the fourth highest generators of e-waste per capita in the world – generating just over 23.6kg per person (574,000 tonnes per annum) – and are also guilty of being great hoarders, with more than 25 million mobile phones lying idle in homes.
The numbers are even more staggering when you consider that the world generated 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste in a year, yet only 20 per cent were recycled through appropriate channels.
In response to the slow pace of regulatory and industry action, a new independent think-tank – called Ewaste Watch – is being launched today in Australia to act in the public interest to protect human health and the environment by accelerating increased levels of electronics sustainability from cradle-to-cradle.
Craig Reucassel, presenter of the ABC TV series War on Waste, will officially launch Ewaste Watch at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures and will share his insights on waste, consumption and how we can all act to avoid e-waste in the first place.
Telecommunications company Ericsson predicts there will be 28 billion connected devices globally by 2020. However, this number does not account for a diverse range of other non-network connected products such as power-tools, domestic appliances and various battery-powered products.
John Gertsakis, Ewaste Watch director and co-founder, said there is a lack of effective collaboration, research and action on how to effectively deal with the rapid growth of electronics and the associated socio-environmental impacts.
“Most activities are limited to recycling, with no real focus on addressing the impacts of scarce and non-renewable materials used in electronics. Ewaste Watch is driven by three key questions – are we doing enough; can we do better; and what are the solutions beyond recycling?” Gertsakis said.
“Electrical and electronic products are proliferating in society. They saturate our existence – how we work, live and play. They are often essential devices that bring functional utility, improved safety and much needed convenience. In many ways, they have become an extension of us that we take for granted.
“However, the reality is that recycling alone will not deliver the sustainable outcomes and materials conservation required. Greater attention is needed on product durability, reuse, repair, sharing and productive material-use to turn the tide on e-waste and create circular electronics.”
In Australia, the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme regulated under the Commonwealth Product Stewardship Act has collected and recycled 291,280 tonnes of TV and computer e-waste since the scheme’s creation in 2011.
However, this doesn’t include a variety of other end-of-life electronics, most of which are still ending up in landfill. There are few, if any, collection, reuse or recycling options for small appliances, power-tools, photovoltaic panels, handheld batteries and a growing number of consumer electronics devices.
The situation across the Tasman in New Zealand is even more uncertain, with no regulation or national e-waste collection and recycling service for householders or business. While some voluntary initiatives exist in NZ, they are piecemeal with limited environmental benefit in terms of widespread diversion from landfill.
According to Rose Read, Ewaste Watch director and co-founder, the new think-tank will inform, educate, engage and activate key stakeholders across the electronics lifecycle – from design and manufacturing, through to retail, government and the general public.
“Business as usual and voluntary programs have barely made a dent in the total volume of e-waste arising, so the urgency for step-change improvement, new business models and positive disruption is now overwhelmingly obvious,” Read said.
“Circular solutions for electronics across the complete product lifecycle is a cornerstone for Ewaste Watch, as is the need to empower consumers to buy less, choose well and make it last.”
Ewaste Watch activities will include attention to social and consumer aspects, product design, cleaner production, smart logistics, innovative consumption models (such as sharing economy and collaborative consumption), reuse, repair and recycling.
The new think-tank will achieve this through knowledge sharing, policy analysis, consumer education, exhibitions and public activations.
“Ewaste Watch is calling on the Federal Environment Minister to expand the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme to include all products with a plug or a battery and ensure that end-of-life electronics are diverted from landfill and responsibly recycled,” the Ewaste Watch Institute said.
“This should include all consumer electronics products, Internet of Things devices, and photovoltaic panels, inverters and energy storage systems.
“As a matter of urgency, Ewaste Watch is calling on the Federal Environment Minister to create a regulated national recycling scheme for all handheld batteries (single-use and rechargeable) under the Commonwealth Product Stewardship Act.
“The Federal government, through the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Department of the Environment and Energy, must require any company placing Internet of Things devices on the Australian market, to provide a detailed plan for the reuse and recycling of these devices when they are damaged, replaced or reach end-of-life, including how such plans will be funded.”
Ewaste Watch will collaborate closely with its research partner, the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS. Professor of Resource Futures Damien Giurco will chair the Ewaste Watch advisory group.