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Publishers Letter

Councils’ e-waste ban will discourage recycling

Over the last six months or more, quite a few municipal councils have announced that they will no longer accept e-waste on street clean-ups. Ultimately, all councils will follow. And if you take defunct equipment to your local council tip, there is now a substantial dumping fee. The stated reason for this is that the councils are concerned with the increasing amount of electronic equipment going to landfill and more to the point, they are concerned with heavy metal pollution.

On the face of it, this is a legitimate concern. Heavy metals dumped in landfill may eventually leach out into the water table and the wider environment. But what heavy metals are we concerned about? Presumably, the list would include mercury (the worst), lead and copper; these being the most used in electronic equipment. Having said that, most of the mercury which ends up in landfill would come from defunct fluorescent lamps, including those used in the back-lighting for LCD monitors and TV sets. But the quantities of conventional and compact fluorescent lamps would far exceed the couple that would be in the LCD monitors which are being dumped.

As for copper, well there is some copper in all electronic equipment, either in the wiring or the printed circuit boards. And lead is a major constituent of the solder used in electronic equipment. So in an ideal world, all these metals would be recycled from this old electronic equipment rather than going to landfill.

The problem is that there is no effective system for collecting all this gear nor presumably, sending it to third-world countries for disassembly and ultimate recycling. While there is some collection and recycling going on, a great deal more needs to be done. In the meantime, the initiative of the councils appears to be misguided. One immediate consequence is that any service organisation now needs to charge for giving a quote, because if the quote is not accepted, the potential customer is likely to leave the defunct unit and the service company will have to pay for dumping it. This means that less equipment is likely to be repaired in the future, adding to an already steep trend.

Nor is the e-waste ban going to stop it being dumped. Instead of putting the gear out for street collection (and possible recycling by electronics enthusiasts), it will be dumped in bushland or smashed up to be put into the domestic garbage collection – so it will still end up in landfill. In fact, I recently spoke to a friend who was about to cut up an old refrigerator with an angle grinder, so he could progressively put it into his garbage bin! I pointed out to him that refrigerators, washing machines etc are not caught in the e-waste ban but it was a very good illustration of what is already happening.

Simply put, councils hate seeing old (and sometimes working) equipment being placed on the street for collection because that must mean that it has been replaced by something newer, larger and better – and we can’t have that, can we? I also think that councils have an exaggerated idea of how much heavy metal there is in electronic equipment. For example, I discovered that some council staff believe that each TV and computer CRT monitor contains several kilograms of lead! Well, they do but nearly all of it is locked up in the glass of the picture tube!

In any case, many recycling initiatives are simply too expensive to be worthwhile. This applies to most paper and plastic recycling – it is cheaper to dump it in landfill. Councils should just get over it. We live in a prosperous country which can afford to pay for lots of new electronic equipment. This is a great benefit to us as it improves our productivity and standard of living. And all those imports also raise the standard of living of millions of people in the developing countries. If that means we dump a few million tonnes of old gear each year into landfill, then so be it.

Leo Simpson

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