The Natural Edge Project The Natural Advantage of Nations Whole System Design Factor 5 Cents and Sustainability Higher Education and Sustainable Development




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Monique Kraemer, Engineers Australia Queensland Division





E-Waste Education Course One


Undergraduate Level

Lecture 2: Dealing with E-Waste - Real Challenges

         

Educational Aim
 

Overcoming the issues associated with E-Waste faces several barriers as previously outlined. The wasteful nature of the design philosophy currently evident throughout all industries has allowed practices and processes to be embedded into our industrial system and changing them will require creativity, innovation and commitment. The linear 'cradle-to-grave' model, sometimes known as 'take, make and waste', has formed large infrastructure assets that need to be reassessed. In the cradle-to-grave model, products are designed under the assumption that their materials will be disposed of at end-of-life, with virtually no account for resource reuse or recycling. This practice gives rise to not only a tremendous volume of waste, but also a toxic dispersal. This unit will look at the hard edge of the real challenges that face the early movers seeking to reduce their environmental damage and improve performance.

 

 
Learning Points

* 1. Not all lessons from foreign E-Waste trial programs are transferable to Australian industry. Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd[1] notes that ' Australia has unique issues (such as distance to recycling markets, small population and markets) which could not be extrapolated from international collections'. Nonetheless, many of the technical, financial, commercial, strategic and information challenges to eliminating E-Waste are common.

* 2. RMIT & Product Ecology[2] offer five key technical challenges to recycling E-Waste:

1. Potential environmental and health hazards associated with brominated flame retardants in plastics.

2. Difficulties associated with identification of plastics.

3. Lack of high grade end use markets to make use of recyclate - without sufficient end use markets it can lead to significant down-cycling.

4. Uncertainties associated with processing leaded glass in smelters, although this appears to be the only viable market for the material in Australia.

5. Lack of alternative markets for leaded glass in Australia beyond lead smelters.

* 3. The most challenging component of e-products to recycle is plastic. The issue is with recycled plastic purity; it is difficult to make recycled plastic pure enough to be useful.[3] The most significant challenge is separating the plastics in e-products.[4] E-product components are not usually labelled properly or easily identifiable, which makes it likely that even a small amount of incompatible plastic will enter and contaminate a batch of material.

* 4. RMIT & Product Ecology[5] offer six key financial and commercial challenges to recycling E-Waste:

1.  High costs of collection and disassembly relative to the value of recovered materials and components.

2.  The negative value of some components and materials, including CRT glass, wooden cases and some plastics.

3.  The high cost of the recovery of lead from leaded glass at lead smelters.

4.  The low cost of landfill disposal.

5.  Poor markets for leaded glass (technical issues make the separation of lead from the glass difficult). Either material could be utilised in a  variety of high-grade end-markets but together they are a problem.

6.  The need to ensure that companies are not competitively disadvantaged by companies unwilling to meet the same environmental responsibility standards.

AIIA & Planet Ark Consulting[6] add:

7.   The large number of 'orphan products' without brand owner to take responsibility for recovery. Orphan products have 50 percent share of the Australian computer market.

* 5. Eco-labelling helps consumers make informed purchases by publicly endorsing environmentally responsible products. Many PCs have now been endorsed using eco-labels under a number of schemes such as the TCO '99 Certification for personal computers, which covers environmental impact in addition to emissions (electric and magnetic fields, noise and heat), energy efficiency and ecology.[7]

 


Brief Background Information

 

Planned Obsolescence and the Throw-Away Economy

Planned obsolescence to the extent and in the manner that it is currently practiced in industry is generally counterproductive to minimising E-Waste. For example, 'the wireless industry compounds the E-Waste problem through planned obsolescence of cell phone handsets and by locking phones to proprietary networks practically ensuring that consumers need to buy a new handset when switching between wireless carriers'.[8] However, there is also a solid argument for planned obsolescence: 'Rapid technological advances and lower product prices for more powerful machines are contributing to shorter product life spans and frequent replacement'.[9] A solution to this dilemma, as recommended by Environment Victoria, [10] is to design e-products that are only durable and reliable but also upgradeable.

In the US the costs to consumers of recycling E-Waste, mainly fees and inconvenient drop-off locations, usually outweigh any incentives.[11] Many E-Waste recyclers charge fees to cover costs such as labour, expensive shredding machinery, and their own fees for toxic material disposal.[12] An example of the financial challenges is shown in a pilot program conducted by the U.S. EPA, 'that collected electronic scrap in San Jose , CA estimated that it was 10 times cheaper to ship CRT monitors to China than it was to recycle them in the U.S'.[13]

 

Lack of information, Communication and Industry Skills

Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd[14] discusses the lack of awareness of Australian users, industry and government regarding end-of-life computer issues:

•  'The average computer user in Australia is unaware of the scope of the problem of disposal of waste computer equipment. While consumers may be aware of their individual difficulty in locating an appropriate recycling or disposal pathway for their equipment, many do not understand the nature of hazardous materials used in computer manufacture and the requirement for special disposal.'

•  'Users also lack awareness of the range of reuse and recycling options available to them. A number of international manufacturers of computers and printers provide information online on extending the life of purchased computers..., reducing environmental impacts during product use... and purchasing at lower environmental cost... However this information is mostly targeted to the US market and generally does not incorporate Australian contacts.'

However, there is another challenge to the commercialisation of E-Waste recycling: '...the recycling industry is composed of a veritable jungle of overlapping specialists: primary recyclers that refurbish products for resale; secondary recyclers that 'demanufacture' equipment to extract raw materials such as metals, plastic, and glass; smelters that use CRT glass as inputs to produce raw metals; and so-called 'third party' resellers - typically non-profit organizations - that sort and repair obsolete products for resale or donation'.[15] The lack of structure in the industry leads to confusion and hence very little action.

A co-ordinated industry effort is difficult as almost half the Australian computer sales are by many small to medium enterprises (SMEs) outside the industry association. The large computer companies that are part of the Australian Information Industry Association have only about a 40 percent share of the Australian computer market, where as the SMEs have combined market share of 50 percent.[16] The situation for televisions is better, with about 60 percent of televisions sold are brands from companies who are part of the Consumer Electronics Suppliers' Association or the Australian Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers' Association.

[17]  


The Santa Clara County Department of Environment Health[18 found that a consumer-level barrier is sometimes government-imposed recycling fees, with a positive correlation evident between recycling fees and illegal disposal. Illegal disposal is a larger problem in rural areas, which are at a disadvantage due to longer transport distances to processing centres.[19]

The lack of recognition of the size of the waste-computer problem has provided few economic incentives to invest in collection systems or infrastructure. ICT manufacturers have been the only stakeholders with an understanding of the waste equipment volumes; however their focus has not traditionally been on disposal, and dissemination of information to players in the waste and/or recycling industry has not been undertaken. Conversely, recyclers and waste companies have considered infrastructure investment to be too risky without a greater certainty of equipment flows. Because of this lack of data, there has been little analysis undertaken in determining the most suitable methods of collection needed.[20]

Lack of Political Will and Legal Enforcement

The Government Accountability Office[21] summarise the inadequacies of US Federal law: '... current federal laws and regulations (1) allow hazardous used electronics in municipal landfills, (2) do not provide for a financing system to support recycling, and (3) do not preclude electronic products generated in the United States from being exported and subsequently threatening human health and the environment overseas.'

A recent shipping infringement involving UK waste highlights the difficulty with implementing industry wide regulations, such as the Basel Convention, but also shows the effectiveness of the regulations in preventing breaches.

More than 1,000 tonnes of contaminated household refuse disguised as waste paper on its way to be recycled in China is to be sent back to Britain after being intercepted in the Netherlands ... English household rubbish due to be recycled escaped over the border to Germany and that waste has now turned up in Indonesia ... According to Dutch officials... "They used two companies and switched between three different UK ports. It was clearly an attempt to deceive the authorities"... a study by Impel, a group of waste inspectors from six European countries, suggested that up to 20% of the tens of thousands of containers full of waste plastic and paper sent annually from Europe for recycling to China and south-east Asia may be illegal... That is now considered an underestimate. New evidence from the Netherlands suggests that 70% of the European waste shipped via there to developing countries is illegal.[22]

Lack of Consumer Information - Eco-Labelling
Eco-labelling helps consumers make informed purchases by publicly endorsing environmentally responsible products. In Europe , PCs have been endorsed using eco-labels under the following schemes:
[23]

•  'The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees' TCO '95 and TCO '99 Certification for personal computers (including the CPU/case, monitor and keyboard), which covers ergonomic qualities and environmental impact in addition to emissions (electric and magnetic fields, noise and heat), energy efficiency and ecology.'

 

•  'The Nordic Environmental Label (or Swan label), which is a multinational environmental labelling scheme operating in Sweden , Finland , Denmark , Iceland and Norway . The label criteria apply to the CPU/case, monitors and keyboard, and the main requirements are ergonomics, energy efficiency, low electric- and magnetic emissions, ecological requirements concerning choice of materials and construction, and electrical safety and fire risk.'

 

•  'The German Blue Angel Eco-mark (or Umweltzeichen). A non-profit company created by German manufacturers as part of a product stewardship strategy developed this mark. It licences use of the Blue Angel logo to companies meeting specific environmental criteria. Of all European environmental labels, Blue Angel has greatest recognition and penetration within the computer industry... The Blue Angel mark is cited by a number of international computer manufacturers on their web-sites as an environmental benchmark that a number of their products meet.'

•  In 2000, the Japanese Government began an eco-labelling program for computers. The eco-label's criteria considers design for recycling, take-back and recycling provision, elimination of hazardous substances, and energy conservation.[24]

•  Alternatively, warning labels are also valuable. For example, almost all current e-products would qualify as needing 'future hazardous waste' warning label [25]

 

 

References

 

1. Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd (2001) Computer & peripherals material project, Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd, p. 91. (viewed 10 May 2006) (Back)


2. RMIT & Product Ecology (2004) Electrical and electronic products infrastructure facilitation, RMIT, pp. i-ii. http://www.deh.gov.au/industry/waste/electricals/infrastructure (viewed 9 May 2006) (Back)


3. Bannerman, M. (2004) Phone recycling claims called into doubt, Australian Broadcasting Commission. http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2004/

s1260911.htm (viewed 7 May 2006); Schmidt, C.W. (2002) 'E-junk explosion', Environmental Health Perspectives, vol 110, no 4. http://eHP.niehs.nih.gov/members/2002/110-4/focus.html (viewed 4 May 2006) (Back)


4. Schmidt, C.W. (2002) 'E-junk explosion', Environmental Health Perspectives, vol 110, no 4. http://eHP.niehs.nih.gov/members/2002/110-4/focus.html (viewed 4 May 2006); RMIT & Product Ecology (2004) Electrical and electronic products infrastructure facilitation, RMIT, p. 45. http://www.deh.gov.au/industry/waste/electricals/infrastructure (viewed 9 May 2006) (Back)


5. RMIT & Product Ecology (2004) Electrical and electronic products infrastructure facilitation, RMIT, pp. ii-iii. http://www.deh.gov.au/industry/waste/electricals/infrastructure (viewed 9 May 2006)
(Back)


6. AIIA & Planet Ark Consulting (2005) AIIA: e-waste program development phase: report for discussion and feedback, AIIA & Planet Ark Consulting, p. 8. http://www.aiia.com.au/i-cms.isp?file=139/AIIA_Environment_Report_

June29_2005.pdf (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)


7. Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd (2001) Computer & peripherals material project, Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd, pp. 55-56. (viewed 10 May 2006)(Back)


8. Karan cited in Earth Tones (2006) Environmental Internet and phone company weighs in on e-waste, Environmental News Network. http://www.enn.com/press.html?id=272 (viewed 27 April 2006) (Back)


9. Santa Clara County Department of Environment Health (2004) Best Management Practices for Electronic Waste, California Integrated Waste Management Board, p. 3. http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov/Publications/Electronics/63004005.doc (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)


10. Environment Victoria (2005) Environmental report card on computers 2005: computer waste in Australia and the case for producer responsibility, Environment Victoria, p. 3. http://www.envict.org.au/file/EWaste_blue_report_card.pdf (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)


11. Government Accountability Office (2005) Electronic waste: strengthening the role of the Federal Government in encouraging recycling and reuse, United States Government, pp. 10-13. http://www.federalsustainability.org/initiatives/eps/GAO-06-47.pdf (viewed July 9 2006) (Back)


12. Ibid, pp. 12-13
(Back)


13.
Puckett, J., Byster, L., Westervelt, S., Gutierrez, R., Davis, S., Hussain, A. and Dutta, M. (2002) Exporting harm: the high-tech trashing of Asia, Basel Action Network, p. 12. http://www.ban.org/E-waste/technotrashfinalcomp.pdf (viewed 1 May 2006) (Back)


14. Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd (2001) Computer & peripherals material project, Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd, pp 87-88. http://www.deh.gov.au/settlements/publications/waste/electricals/

computer-report/index.html (viewed 10 May 2006) (Back)


15. Schmidt, C.W. (2002) 'E-junk explosion', Environmental Health Perspectives, vol 110, no 4. http://eHP.niehs.nih.gov/members/2002/110-4/focus.html (viewed 4 May 2006) (Back)


16. AIIA & Planet Ark Consulting (2005) AIIA: e-waste program development phase: report for discussion and feedback, AIIA & Planet Ark Consulting, p. 8. http://www.aiia.com.au/i-cms.isp?file=139/AIIA_Environment_Report_

June29_2005.pdf (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)

17. Consumer Electronics Suppliers Association (2004) A collective product stewardship approach for electrical and electronic products in Australia : strategy plan: working document, p. 23. http://www.productstewardship.asn.au/

documents/A_Collective_ProdStew_Approach.pdf (viewed 10 July 2006) (Back)

18. The Santa Clara County Department of Environment Health (2004) Best Management Practices for Electronic Waste, California Integrated Waste Management Board, p. 20. http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov/Publications/Electronics/63004005.doc (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)

19. Ibid, p. 4 (Back)

20. Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd (2001) Computer & peripherals material project, Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd, p. 91. (viewed 10 May 2006) (Back)

21. Government Accountability Office (2005) Electronic waste: strengthening the role of the Federal Government in encouraging recycling and reuse, United States Government, pp. 14. http://www.federalsustainability.org/initiatives/eps/GAO-06-47.pdf (viewed July 9 2006) (Back)

22. Vidal, J. (2005) UK firms caught in illegal waste dumping , The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/waste/story/0,,1446818,00.html (viewed 8 May 2006) (Back)

23. Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd (2001) Computer & peripherals material project, Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Pty Ltd, pp. 55-56. http://www.deh.gov.au/settlements/publications/waste/electricals/

computer-report/index.html (viewed 10 May 2006) (Back)

24. Environment Victoria (2005) Environmental report card on computers 2005: computer waste in Australia and the case for producer responsibility, Environment Victoria, p. 30. http://www.envict.org.au/file/EWaste_blue_report_card.pdf (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)

25. Santa Clara County Department of Environment Health (2004) Best Management Practices for Electronic Waste, California Integrated Waste Management Board, p. 20. http://www.ciwmb.ca.gov/Publications/Electronics/63004005.doc (viewed 9 July 2006) (Back)