Your broken computer is China's garbage dump

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There’s no doubting that Australia loves technology. We’re often hailed as an early adopter of technology and if our voracious appetite for anything and everything new – Blu-Ray, iPhone, plasma televisions, computers – is anything to go by, the assessments are spot on. But what happens when today’s toys turn into tomorrow’s trash?

As we continue to consume the newest gadgets in our quest to possess the latest and greatest products, we continue to amass mountains of electronic waste – waste which often contains toxic materials that are hazardous to the environment and our lives.

So just where does all of Australia's unwanted computers and IT waste go? Although the majority of Australians are dedicated recyclers successful at making sure simple waste such as glass, aluminium and paper receive the proper treatment they need, e-waste presents a whole new host of problems.

The difficulty with e-waste is that it’s made up of so many different and often toxic components. Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic are used in electronic equipment, which when left untreated can leach from landfill tips into the water table and damage delicate ecosystems. Unfortunately, the processes required to extract both the hazardous and valuable, reusable materials from e-waste is an expensive and difficult exercise.

Currently in Australia, a number of recycling initiatives exist that seek to ensure e-waste is dealt with appropriately. While programs such as Byteback, MobileMuster and Close the Loop all work to raise awareness about the need to responsibly recycle e-waste, Australia lacks a coordinated Government-backed national program to make sure e-waste is dealt with appropriately. Because of this, much of Australia’s national e-waste solution is to hide it.

The sad truth about e-waste recycling is that the processes involved are prohibitively expensive. Because of the inherent difficulties in extracting both valuable and hazardous materials from e-waste, it’s infinitely cheaper to sell waste to developing countries.

But as with all issues of the environment, e-waste and its adverse effects are not confined to local geographies. How Australia chooses to dispose and treat its waste has a profound effect on the rest of the world, and shipping it overseas compounds rather than alleviates the environmental stress our planet already undergoes.

The practice of exporting e-waste to developing countries is a long and sordid tale. As electronics increasingly become part of our throw-away culture, amounts of e-waste have dramatically increased while solutions to the problem lag behind.

Global efforts to address the e-waste problem have invariably failed through poor regulation. Even in the European Union (EU) where waste regulation is quite stringent, some 75 percent of all e-waste remains unaccounted for. Of the estimated 8.7 million tonnes of e-waste created annually in the EU, a massive 6.6 million tonnes of e-waste is not recycled.

In the US, the story is even worse. Because there is very little regulation, less than 20 percent of US e-waste is recovered for recycling. Figures for Australian rates of recycling do not fare much better. It’s estimated that even though seven million PCs will be available for recycling in 2008, only 500,000 will be recycled, 1.6 million will be sent to landfill, and the remaining 5.4 million will collect dust in garages.

If you don’t like the idea of millions of tonnes of e-waste rotting in your backyard, then spare a thought for the developing countries that receive our waste through financial necessity.

While statistics on the amount of imported e-waste are inevitably incomplete, available numbers show an increase in First World garbage shipped to China via Hong Kong from 2.3 to 3 million tones per year from 1998 to 2002. This small example shows that as a developed country we are not prepared to deal with our own rubbish, opting instead to directly transfer pollution to developing countries.

The sad thing about this whole e-waste export problem is that despite advocacy groups and the United Nations espousing the perils of such practice, we continue to do it. This despite UN conventions that seek to regulate the sale of hazardous materials to developing countries.

The most prominent UN treaty to regulate the sale of e-waste to poor countries is the Basel Convention which was initiated in response to outrage at the international trafficking of hazardous waste. Adopted in 1992, the Convention has been ratified by over 150 countries including Australia.

But Australia’s involvement in the Basel Convention is not as commendable as it appears. According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), an advocacy group focused on confronting the economic inefficiency of toxic trade and its devastating impacts, Australia has actively sought to undermine the Basel Convention by continuing to sell its hazardous waste to poorer nations. We join a growing list of countries on BAN’s hall of shame including New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

While Australia’s Department of Environment and Heritage administers the Hazardous Waste (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1989 which implements Australia’s obligations under the Basel Convention, its effectiveness has been undermined by parties intent on making a buck through the export of e-waste often under the guise of aid or scrap metal recovery.

But aside from applying more pressure on the government to enforce stricter regulation of the Hazardous Waste Act, what else can we do to ensure we address the e-waste problem instead giving it to someone else to deal with?

A good starting point would be to address our e-waste problem before it gets to our backyard. Too often we wait until we have a waste problem before we even start to think about solving it. While it’s necessary to always maintain pressure on waste legislators, it’s also possible to seek solutions from the actual product designers. If we're serious about addressing our waste problem, we need to start work at the design stage of a product's life cycle to make sure it is not only environmentally friendly, but reusable.

The sooner we realise that our e-waste is our problem, the sooner we can move towards achieving true Green IT. Because being Green is not just about looking after your own backyard, but rather your neighbours’ too.
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