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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.

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.