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What is E-waste and how big a problem is it?

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Have you ever given thought to the last time you upgraded your old mobile phone, printer, television or computer? Did you consider what would happen to those items after they were thrown out?

As we strive to have the latest and greatest, we often forget that our purchase comes with a price, but it's not necessarily the store price that we should be most concerned about.

Your old electronic devices may look harmless, but they are actually full of many harmful chemicals and heavy metals. An these present a dangerous health hazard for the lives of millions, whose job it is to recycle the waste in third world depositories.

An estimated 100 million electronic devices are stored in homes across Australia. Gradually, as technology gets better over time, these devices will be discarded in favour of newer models, and this is where the problem of electronic waste begins - in the home.  

The real cost of electronic waste

Our unquenchable diet for high-tech consumerism is having a huge impact on our local environment. Our local landfills have become a toxic depositary for heavy metal residue, as discarded electronic devices leak and break down into our ecosystem.

While it may be relatively simple for local councils to collect, sort and resell our glass, paper and plastics in regular collections - electronic products are notoriously difficult to recycle because they usually need to be taken apart first: renewables sorted from unrenewables, heavy metals from reusable metals. The process is both expensive and labour intensive and part of the reason why many companies go offshore for their recycling.

Unfortunately, the electronic waste scrap heap is neither safe nor localised. Much of our e-waste - like that of other developed countries of the OECD - is deposited across third world recycling centre's in regions such China, India, Africa and South East Asia, where our unwanted landfill becomes another country's problem.

The E-waste profit

Corporations worldwide are often pressured to dispose of their e-waste by the cheapest means possible. In the United States, it costs as much as $US 20 to recycle a computer. But in the slum areas of India, in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, women and children work in difficult conditions earning subsistence wages, resulting in the recycling of a computer to be as low as $US 2. 

Computers are an attractive electronic item to e-waste recyclers - there are small amounts of copper, silver and even gold to be extracted from circuit boards, while plastics, glass and other industrial metals are equally desirable to third world vendors who have carved a lucrative trade out of the e-waste economy. Parts are resold onwards as secondary materials to suppliers and manufacturers which seek low-priced commodities and raw materials for reuse in new products.

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