MELBOURNE - With electronic items high on Christmas shopping lists, a new report is calling on the government to ensure that manufacturers collect and recycle unwanted computers and mobile phones to protect environmental and human health.
"This is the motherboard of all problems. Federal and state governments must act to stop the dumping of millions of electronic items in landfill each year," says Jeff Angel, director of the Total Environment Centre (TEC), an independent Australian green organisation.
In a report released earlier this month titled ‘Tipping Point: Australia's E-Waste Crisis', the TEC says that by the end of 2008, in excess of 168 million items of electronic waste -- known as e-waste -- will either be in landfills or on their way to be buried in the ground.
The problem with this method of disposal, says the TEC's resource conservation campaigner, Jane Castle, is the hazardous legacy that e-waste can create.
"There are toxic materials that are leached out of these products when they're in landfill and they can damage human and environmental health," says Castle.
Among the toxins that can escape from computers, cell phones, printers and photocopiers are mercury, lead, arsenic and cadmium. The TEC says that through the federally administered phase-out of incandescent lamps -- they are being replaced with more efficient compact fluorescent lamps -- some 1,300 grams of mercury is heading to landfills in the state of New South Wales alone.
Just one gram of mercury is enough to contaminate four billion litres of water above internationally accepted safety standards.
And with Australians among the top-ten consumers of electronic items in the world, the TEC is warning that the problem of e-waste is becoming a crisis.
Sales of computers, mobile phones and digital cameras have all increased in recent years, and a large percentage of these products will eventually end up in landfill sites.
Although take-back schemes are in place elsewhere in the world -- including in the European Union, some states in the Americas and Asian nations such as the Philippines, South Korea and China -- Australia, which produces 60,000 tonnes of e-waste per year, lacks a regulated system of recovery and re-use.
Despite six e-waste recyclers currently operating in Australia -- the largest is able to recycle 20,000 tonnes of e-waste annually -- they are running at well-below capacity.
Less than four percent of mobile phones, which have an average life span of around 18 months, are recycled, while of the four million new computers sold each year, just 1.5 percent are recycled.
Castle argues that consumers are not at fault for their unwanted electronic items going to landfill. The problem "is an absence of information for consumers and an absence of an actual pathway [for recycling]," she says.
The TEC wants the government to legislate so that the onus is on the manufacturers to collect and recycle items that are no longer wanted.
"The reason that we want the responsibility placed on producers is because they are the people who choose the material, who decide on the design of the products, they determine how easy they are to recycle and disassemble, and they also decide on how much toxic material goes into them," Castle told IPS.
"It's a new paradigm, which is if you make it, you take it back," she adds.
But while the cost of such a system would ultimately be borne by consumers -- the TEC says that a "small" levy added to products would fund it -- there are signs in Australia that a shift in paradigm is indeed resulting in practical changes.
The industry-led Product Stewardship Australia (PSA) -- members include high-profile manufacturers like Sony Australia, Sanyo Oceania and Philips Electronics Australia -- is aiming to develop recycling pathways to divert e-waste from landfill sites.
The PSA is initially focusing on the recovering and recycling of televisions -- current members supply some 60 percent of televisions in the Australian market -- but the group says that support from the state and federal governments is vital if the program is to be expanded for other items.
Although the PSA says that the protection of the environment from toxic substances is a major motivating factor to develop structured and regulated recycling programs, the opportunity to fully utilise the materials is also a key, a point highlighted by the TEC.
"Recyclers can actually recover over 95 percent of these products and they can feed those materials back into other processes and products, so there is a solution," says Castle, who confirmed that the remaining five percent would then go to landfill.
But the TEC campaigner says that with electronic devices containing valuable and non-renewable resources such as gold and copper, burying them in the ground is illogical.
"Many of these materials are actually running out, so it's insane to be throwing them in landfill and depriving recyclers of the cash and opportunity to expand their infrastructure," she says.
According to the Tipping Point report, elements such as indium, lead and copper have respectively only 10, 42 and 61 years worth of supply left. Among e-waste items where these materials can be found are televisions, batteries, monitors, circuit boards and computer chips.
But while the increasing amounts of e-waste dumped in Australia means that the potential threat to health is growing, a trend in recent years has seen e-waste sent from one country to another, with China, India and Kenya all being recipients.
Although Castle supports the export of useable items "in the short term because extending a product's life is a better use of materials than just shredding it up for use in another product," she acknowledges that the Basel Convention -- an international treaty regulating trade of hazardous waste -- is able to be undermined.
The "rules probably need to be made more stringent so that we don't see electronic waste which is hazardous being exported out of the country under the guise of being for re-use," says Castle.