The electronics life cycle
in Greener Homes on 17 April 2011
Old electronics are too valuable to be dumped
IN Life Pscycle-ology, a short animation by Leyla Acaroglu, a forlorn mobile phone named Eric Sun laments his future stuck in a desk drawer. He is only one year old.
But poor Eric Sun’s plight is just the tip of the landfill. According to Greenpeace, e-waste now comprises five per cent of global municipal waste, nearly the same amount as all plastic packaging.
Ms Acaroglu, from Melbourne design consultancy Eco Innovators, says only one out of every 100 discarded mobile phones is recycled.
“The way we use and abuse high-end goods is very inefficient,” she says. “They contain hazardous substances that escape into the waterways or leach out in landfill. It’s wasteful and unfair to future generations – we’re gobbling up valuable resources so we can all have the latest iPad.”
Unfortunately, pollution and waste aren’t the only worries. Our throwaway electronics have side-effects all along the production line, from allegations that the illegal trade in minerals funds conflict in eastern Congo, to the dumping of e-waste on developing countries. (For more about the high-tech life cycle, see Annie Leonard’s animation, The Story of Electronics, and for background on conflict minerals, check out US charity, The Enough Project.)
“Australia is one of the only industrialised countries that doesn’t have effective end-of-life management for electrical goods,” Ms Acaroglu says. “And not only that, we also have no restriction on the hazardous substances used in those goods.”
But at least we’ll soon be able to get old TVs off the footpaths. Under legislation introduced to federal parliament in March, importers and manufacturers will be required to fund and run a national recycling scheme for televisions and computers, set to begin before the end of the year.
Ms Acaroglu says that while the product stewardship legislation is a crucial step, the goods themselves must be made differently. “Many of our products are designed to break. We really need to be creating long-lasting, interchangeable, upgradeable products,” she says.
“We need system service models – so that if you buy a computer, it’s not more expensive to get it repaired or upgraded than it is to buy a new one.”
In the meantime, Ms Acaroglu says householders can still minimise their gadget habit. First, unplug or switch off chargers at the wall – needless energy consumption accounts for a large dose of a mobile’s life cycle impact.
“Secondly, consider the consumption hierarchy,” she says. “Do you really need this product?”
If you really do, consider buying second hand or opting for the best quality, longest-lasting one you can find. Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics is helpful; it ranks the major brands’ performance on toxic substances, carbon footprint and e-waste.
“Seek out products that have longer warranties or service components associated with them,” Ms Acaroglu suggests. “Cheaper is not always better. And when something is really, truly no longer of use to you, make sure you recycle it.”
You can earn money for your old gizmos on eBay or from buy-back businesses (such as Mazuma Mobile or Cash a Phone), or give them away on Freecycle. There’s also a recycling scheme for mobiles, called Mobile Muster. Victorians can drop off old computers through the Byteback scheme, operated by Sustainability Victoria.
“Don’t leave them stuck in your drawer,” Ms Acaroglu says. “Get those resources back into the recycling stream.”