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Environmental Management Issues Associated with the Production of 'e-Waste' in Australia

Essay by   •  September 27, 2011  •  Case Study  •  4,364 Words (18 Pages)  •  1,633 Views

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1. Introduction

Obsolete electronic goods or 'e-waste' is the fastest growing waste stream in the world today (Herat, 2009, Davis and Herat, 2008). E-waste is generated at a rate of three to five percent (%) per annum, approximately three times faster than other individual waste streams in the municipal waste sector (Herat, 2009, Davis and Herat, 2008). Currently it is estimated that 20 to 50 million tonnes of e-waste is discarded annually around the world (Ongondo et al., 2011, Robinson, 2009).

The constant availability of new technology, design and the increasing early obsolescence of products, are key factors which stimulate the fast pace accumulation of e-waste (Davis and Herat, 2008, Robinson, 2009). E-waste includes all discarded electronic products, among which televisions (TVs), personal computers (PCs), computer monitors and mobile phones comprise the most significant components (Li et al., 2009, Robinson, 2009).

E-waste is distinct from other forms of municipal waste as it contains both valuable and hazardous materials and therefore requires appropriate handling and recycling methods to avoid environmental contamination and detrimental effects on human health (Robinson, 2009). Globally, the attention to the environmental impacts from e-waste is increasing through political and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace, the Basal Action Network, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and also in the scientific community (Robinson, 2009).

The following is a review of literature based on the production and management of e-waste in Australia and the environment impacts, human health implications, current government initiatives and attitudes towards sustainable consumption associated with the issue. Also presented are examples of the effects of e-waste in a global context.

1.1 E-waste in Australia

Australia, being ranked as one of the highest consumers in new technology in the world, is experiencing a rapid uptake of electronic goods and consequently generating e-waste at an alarming rate (Ongondo et al., 2011). E-waste in Australia is growing at over three times the rate of general municipal waste (ABS, 2006, TEC, 2008). Each year Australians buy over 2.4 million PCs and more than 1 million TVs (ABS, 2006). With the dependence on electronic products increasing, the stockpile of used, obsolete electronic products grows. It is estimated that there are currently around nine million computers, five million printers and two million scanners in households and businesses across Australia, each destined to be replaced generally within two or three years from purchase (ABS, 2006).

Currently in Australia, only 4% of the increasing amount of e-waste is recycled, with most being disposed of in landfills or often exported to less developed countries (Li et al., 2009).

The Senate for the Australian Environment and Communications Leglisation Committee (2011) estimated that the quantity of hazardous waste that was generated in Australia in 2002 doubled by 2006 to approximately 1.9 million tonnes, this including an estimated 60,000 tonnes of e-waste (TEC, 2008).

2. Problems associated with e-waste

The potential adverse impacts associated with e-waste are well known and documented in the scientific literature. In general, electronic products contain a variety of components, many of which contain materials that are highly toxic (Herat, 2009, TEC, 2008, Davis and Herat, 2008, Li et al., 2009, Puckett et al., 2002).

The chemical composition of e-waste varies depending on the age and type of the discarded item (Robinson, 2009), however, most e-waste is composed of a mixture of metals, particularly copper, aluminium and iron, and various types of plastics and ceramics (Robinson, 2009). Other toxic materials found in the electronic components of e-waste include heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, mercury, zinc, tin, silver, beryllium, nickel, chromium and antimony. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is found in the plastics and Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) such as Polybrominated Biphenyls (PBBs) and Polybrominated Diphenylethers (PBDs) are also found (Herat, 2009).

In Australia the major concern for the potential impacts of e-waste on the environment lies in the huge amount of waste that enters landfills.

2.1 Landfills and environmental issues

The Total Environment Centre (2008) estimated that in Australia, 168 million e-waste items were either in landfill or on their way to landfill in 2008. This included about 37 million computers, 17 million TVs and 56 million mobile phones.

With the switch to digital TV to continue through to 2013 and the obsession with upgrading mobile phones and other electronic devices, the amount of e-waste entering landfills in Australia is expected to increase substantially in the future (TEC, 2008). Figure 1 shows the future growth curve of e-waste stockpiled in landfill across Australia, estimated by the Total Environment Centre (2008).

Figure 1. Australia's estimated e-waste stockpile in landfills (TEC, 2008)

With the accumulation of e-waste in landfills there is the potential for the toxic materials to leach into the water table, threatening the environment as well as human health. Li et al. (2009) estimated that e-waste contributes to as much as 70% of total heavy metals, and 40% of total lead in the waste stream. Li et al. (2009) also identified, from simulated landfill scenarios, that through the corrosion of e-waste, heavy metals have the ability to travel with the leachate in landfills and eventually enter the water table posing long-term environmental impacts of heavy metal contamination.

Most studies investigating e-waste contaminants in landfills, however, have been limited to assessing just a few key contaminants, especially lead. Therefore, there is a gap in information on the behaviour of oxyanion forming contaminants such as antimony, which can occur at concentrations greater than 1000mg/kg in some e-waste components (Robinson, 2009). Antimonate has been shown to be more mobile and more toxic in soil than lead, and is more soluble at higher pH levels and is readily absorbed by plants (Robinson, 2009). Also PBDs, which are mixed into the plastics and components of e-waste, have no chemical bonds between the plastics and therefore have the ability to easily leach from the surface of e-waste components into the environment (Robinson, 2009). PBDs are lipophilic, thus resulting in bioaccumulation in organisms and biomagnification in food chains (Robinson, 2009).

2.2 Human & environmental

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