Feature

E-waste busters!

G Magazine

Is your computer on the way out? You might be surprised at the options for upgrading, refurbishing and recycling.

E-waste

Many computers become obsolete so quickly because they're too slow to run the latest software - but old computers can be given a new lease on life.

Credit: iStockphoto

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There's no denying: we're in the digital age. Technology now changes so much and so rapidly that electronics such as computers are considered past their best after barely a year - long before their hardware has a chance to wear out. Welcome to the world of massive electronic waste.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians buy more than 2.4 million computers per year. But we only recycle around 500,000, with 1.6 million going to landfill and the rest kept in storage.

Aside from the space it takes up, electronic equipment often contains toxins that, if disposed of in landfill, can leach into ground water and contaminate soil. But there should be no need to throw computers away when over 98 per cent of the components can be reused or recycled. So what should you do with an old computer?

Upgrade the software

Before you buy a new computer, consider the reasons you're thinking about the upgrade. Are you running out of storage space? It's possible to free up some space by storing data online at sites like Amazon Web Services. Amazon (yes, the US-based book seller) has web servers available to securely store data for a small monthly fee. But if you've got a lot of data, an external hard drive is the way to go - they're small and they don't use energy unless you need to access the old files.

Alternatively, consider buying more memory for your current machine. Many computers have expansion slots that allow you to upgrade the memory, extending the life of your computer. Check out www.upgradeable.com.au for the appropriate RAM (memory) for your computer.

Refurbish

Many computers become obsolete so quickly that they're too slow to run the latest software - that's the main reason they're discarded. But computers just a few years old can be refurbished for use by people who just need web access and word processing.

Various charitable organisations accept computers as part of the Microsoft Community Authorised Refurbisher program (click here for a list of the organisations involved). After being completely wiped of all information, the computers are sold with the Windows operating system installed for free to a disadvantaged person or a not-for-profit organisation.

Australian businesses turn over their computers, on average, every 18 months, which adds up to a lot of machines that can be given a new lease of life.

Reuse

Even computers that have given up the ghost for good can still breathe new life into other machines, as they can be used as a source of spare parts for other computers.

Reverse Garbage, for example, is a not-for-profit collective in Sydney that uses old computer parts to repair and refurbish other computers. Unlike many recycling organisations, Reverse Garbage does not charge fees to take old computers off your hands. Machines are dismantled on site, functioning parts are used and the rest are offered to local artists who turn the old parts into everything from lamps to jewellery.

Recycle

The last resort for old computers is recycling whatever can't be refurbished or reused. As recycling is a labour-intensive process, most recyclers will charge a fee to take away your e-waste.

Ask the original manufacturer of the computer if they have a take-back program. Many (such as Dell and Toshiba) do, but some will charge a fee to pick up the equipment while others will pay you small amounts (around $50) for late-model computers.

Those machines are typically recycled by certified companies that dismantle the equipment, then recycle each of the components separately. Plastics are shredded and recycled into fence posts within Australia. Wires are chopped up and the copper extracted for reuse. Most other components, such as motherboards, batteries and lead-laced glass from old CRT monitors, are shipped overseas for recycling.

Buying a new computer?

• If you really need to buy a new computer, opt for a laptop instead of a desktop - they use up to 85 per cent less energy than standard desktop computers.

• Choose computers with bodies made from aluminium and glass, as these materials are easier to recycle and reuse than the typical plastic casing. Also look out for eco-options, like bamboo.

• Consider the environmental credentials of the manufacturers before you make your purchase. Greenpeace conducts an annual survey of computer and electronics manufacturers and gives them an overall score.

Where do I recycle?

Go to www.recyclingnearyou.com.au and search for computer recyclers in your local council area. Victorians can use the free ByteBack program through Sustainability Victoria. Byteback accepts all computers, keyboards, mice, printers, scanners, computer power supplies, printed circuit boards, motherboards, network and memory cards, disk and CD drives, at no charge. However, there is a limit of 10 items per person.