It's sitting on your desk looking at you right now. Smart. Sometimes silent. Sometimes frustrating. And full of chemical and toxins. What is it?
It is your computer.
Yes, your computer contains over one kilogram of lead and a veritable cocktail of chemicals including antimony, arsenic, boron, phosphor, nitric acid, hydrofluoric acid, and hydrogen fluoride to name a few.
Your computer is also rich in mineral resources: Electronics account for ten percent of the world’s production of gold, of which only thirty percent is recovered from scrap. Electronics also contain copper. It's a worse situation for copper: ninety percent of copper in a computer can be recovered but only ten percent is.
This toxic and inefficient cocktail is where the term eWaste (electronic waste) comes from. And as a business, why should you care?
There are a couple of reasons, the first has to do with the ongoing viability of the Australian penchant for new electronics. In Australia 43 million tonnes of electronic waste ended up in landfill in 2006-07 – an increase of 31% to the five years prior, and only 10% of the 16.8 million televisions and computers we bought in 2007-08 were recycled. The rest are sitting in landfill slowly leaching those chemicals into the soil, making their way down the soil layers into the ground water that feeds our rivers and streams.
And if you think the damage is an exaggeration, go to your search engine and type: "Guiyu China electronics". The resulting photos will amaze you. The city of Guiyu processes electronic waste and has fouled their rivers so badly they now need to ship in drinking water to enable them to continue living there.
The second reason is because on earth we have finite resources. When we use minerals like gold and silver and we don't recover them, those minerals are deducted from our overall supply. Eventually the tally will get so low, we won't have those resources available to us any longer if we don't recycle what we use.
The New World
Since 2003 the European Union has regulated the production of six hazardous chemicals and held manufacturers accountable for equipment end-of-life through the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directives, however until 5th November 2009, Australia's own eWaste initiatives were lacking.
On this day, the Australian federal government announced the agreement of the "National Waste Policy: Less Waste, More Resources". The policy outlines how Australia will implement a program of works to better manage the massive waste problem. One of the first areas to be targeted in the policy is a national product stewardship and extended producer responsibility framework for eWaste.
The impact to businesses is threefold.
The first is most applicable to electronic manufacturers and supply chains. Federal government will implement legislation and policies which will transfer the responsibility and cost for electronic waste resource recovery and disposal from the general community, to the product supply and consumption chain. Within three years the first product stewardship program will be in place. Televisions and computers will be covered by a co-regulatory scheme where even those who do not participate will still be subject to similar requirements, to ensure they cannot gain competitive advantage.
The second area is business development opportunities and jobs creation. The government predicts there will be improved economic and job opportunities arising from the wasteland, and history too tells us that implementing massive change such as this will require new businesses, creation of new roles, and information distribution systems and training services.
The third area is improving the output of any business – by 2020 the government wants businesses to "embrace innovations that support the creation of value from potential waste streams and minimise their environmental footprint."
What exactly these innovations are or how the government will assist business in taking advantage of new processes, technologies and policies is yet to be clarified. However, there are steps any business can start taking now.
Getting Ahead of the Game
Setting up an electronic waste initiative in your business should generally encompass the following five steps:
- Audit & analyse your existing environment
- Develop a partnering strategy
- Review purchasing policies
- Implement a disposal program
- Develop a monitoring, reporting and feedback program
Audit and analyse your existing environment
The first step is to undertake an analysis of your existing policies and procedures related to disposal of eWaste in your business. Conduct a review of what electronics you buy, how often you buy them and where they are disposed of when they are written off.
Develop a partnering strategy
Partner engagement is a key building block for an eWaste program. The proposed product stewardship scheme for computers will mainly benefit consumers, with free recycling and drop-off points nationally. However in Australia, there are a number of eWaste companies that manage electronics recycling, giving businesses a monetary return on electronics that may otherwise end up in landfill.
Review purchasing policies
As a business there isn’t a whole lot you can directly influence around the chemicals and compounds found in electronics. However people in purchasing roles do have influence on purchasing policies. A few of the important purchasing decisions to review include:
- Choose flat panel displays instead of CRT screens – CRTs typically contains over 1kg of lead (and consume about 50% more energy than LCDs).
- Where possible choose LED backlighting instead of traditional LCD fluorescents – the latter contains arsenic and mercury.
- Buy “eco” desktops and laptops – EPEAT (a US initiative by the Green Electronics Council) certifies IT hardware based on a well-rounded set of criteria such as energy conservation, corporate policies, materials selection and packaging.
Implement a disposal program
While you are implementing an electronic waste program it is also a perfect time to look at other waste output of your business - disposal is bigger than just getting rid of computers in an environmentally responsible way – it covers everything from paper and cardboard, to the electronics within computers, to the batteries used by electronic devices.
Simply applying stricter policies to electronic waste can return great environmental and financial benefits. Stricter policies can help businesses determine if a phone or computer really needs to be replaced, or whether it can simply be upgraded with new components to extend its life.
Once you have developed a disposal policy, the final step is to decide on the recycler your business will use. When assessing potential recycling partners, ask them questions such as:
- How do you re-use equipment?
- What happens to equipment that can’t be re-used? Where does it go?
- Can we tour your facilities?
- Can you provide us with feedback from your other customers?
- Can we talk to the recipients of your re-used equipment?
Develop a monitoring, reporting and feedback program
Finally, after setting up these environmentally friendly practices, you’ll need a good reporting system to feedback progress to business management and staff, to ensure continued support.
This article was originally printed in Australian Business Solutions Magazine, February edition