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The hazards of E-waste

Toxic e-components such as lead, cadmium, PCB's and mercury leach into our soil and waterways, long after they have been disposed of in landfill. The process of extracting usable materials from electronic items is both hazardous and often non-regulated. Strict waste standards that exist in much of the developed world have prompted companies to take short cuts and dispose of their waste elsewhere.

Third world industrial e-waste centres have become thriving businesses and entire communities have been built around their existence. The industry now poses life-threatening consequences for the residents of local villages and cities, in places where water supplies and soils set aside for food crops have been found to be extremely high in waste pollutants.

The conditions for workers are incredibly dangerous - heavy metals such as mercury and lead are absorbed by workers as they heat the materials in order to separate them. Repeated exposure over time has led to a number of reproductive, mental and physical health problems for workers. These include: carcinogens released from toner cartridges, lead poisoning from cathode ray tubes (monitors, TVs) and arsenic from old circuit boards.

The Basel Convention

Fortunately, Australia was among 162 other countries that ratified the Basel convention, which is an agreement pertaining to the export of hazardous e-waste and how it is handled. Under Basel convention protocol, an e-waste recycler must be certified, and comply to strict standards, seeking to minimise the human and environmental harm caused by the rapid growth in e-waste recycling.

Not surprisingly, the United States was the only OECD country not to join and among only four countries in the world not to sign up. You can find out more here (link = ).

How you can be part of the solution

According to the latest ABS data, Australians buy more than 2 million new computers each year; but of more concern, about 1.6 million computers were dumped into landfill. From this figure, only about 500,000 units were recycled. While these figures sound massive, there are a few small ways we can make a difference:

Donate your old computer to charity. An organization such asCharity Computers and Computer Bank have more details.

Recycle your used toner and ink cartridges. Programs such as Close the Loop are doing great work for the environment.

Encourage your employer or local businesses to recycle their electronic waste with companies such as 1800 E-waste (

Learn more about your local e-waste recycling centre here.

Buy equipment made using recycled materials, including packaging. Check the various vendor websites before you buy.

Consider upgrading your computer system - many of its parts can be reused without needing to purchase an entirely new setup. Or buy second hand on

Green PC also have some good deals.

Consider leasing / buy-back schemes that encourage items to be reused.

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