Recycle old computers

e-waste recycling is vital in preventing toxic materials in old electronic equipment from leaching into the environment. Here's how you can do your bit to help.
 
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01 .e-waste

Green recycle key on a keyboard

Computers are an integral part of daily life, but as they become obsolete we’re faced with the problem of disposing of all the e-waste. The UN estimates that some 20 to 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated globally every year.

The vast number of products committed to landfill annually means toxic materials, including mercury and lead, can leach into soil and water and lead to contamination of the food chain. Additionally, rare and non-renewable materials are wasted instead of being re-used. Although Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics suggests that manufacturing methods have improved, many companies continue to use toxic chemicals and primary materials over recycled parts.

We look at:

At the end of November 2011, an estimated 17 per cent of TVs, computers and computer products were recycled in Australia. New government-backed recycling efforts have been put in place across most of Australia and it's the duty of consumers to engage with these and meet the national e-recycling target of 80 per cent by the end of 2021.

 
 

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Long before you have to dispose of any e-waste, you can reduce your e-waste footprint by:  

  • Using the Energy Star ratings and choosing, where possible, products with the lowest energy use.
  • Purchasing products as a long-term investment - once every three to five years rather than yearly.
  • Donating your old PC or electronic equipment that's still in good condition to a charity or community group, if you decide to upgrade
  • Taking your old equipment to a local computer store. Some buy old/broken gear for spare parts, or may be able to recommend a recycling service.

Some of the main ways you can safely dispose of your e-waste and encourage the use of recycled materials in computer manufacturing is via:

National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme 

The National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) lets homes and small businesses dispose of their computers, TVs and computer components (keyboards, monitors, mice, etc) at drop-off points in each state and territory, free of charge. The program has been implemented in all states and territories, except the Northern Territory, and is scheduled to be fully rolled out by the end of 2013. For a full list of drop-off points and opening times go to the NTCRS website or Dropzone, which also lists products that can be recycled.

TechCollect is a similar program that was set up by Australia and New Zealand Recycling Platform in 2011, which is backed by technology importers and manufacturers. It was approved by the federal government when the NTCRS was introduced and continues to work in conjunction with local councils to provide recycling solutions.

If your state or territory hasn't rolled out the scheme, they are likely to have an environmental department that's responsible for recycling e-waste in conjunction with local councils. While many popular state-based programs, such as Byteback in Victoria, ceased operations once the federal scheme was rolled out, some companies and not-for-profit organisations offer recycling services. See our list of refurbishers and recyclers for more information.

Community programs

Some organisations refurbish computers and offer them to not-for-profit groups, or accept computers for disposal. For example, Planet Ark and Sensis created the Recycling Near You website that lets you search by area or product to find a local recycling centre. Business and government services in your area may also host Planet Ark drop-off bins for printer cartridges. ComputerBank New England is one example of a community-based recycling scheme, with branches in Armidale, Inverell and Uralla. It is a voluntary organisation that recycles old computer equipment and sells small amounts of recovered material to fund running costs. You should also search online or contact your local council for information on community recycling programs, as some services may not be listed on Recycling Near You.

MobileMuster

MobileMuster is a free, industry-backed service that recycles mobile phones, smartphones, phone batteries and accessories. The program operates across Australia at many major retailers and businesses. The website helps you locate your nearest drop-off point, and explains how you can post your old phone, if you can’t make it to one of the locations.

There are no government- or industry-backed recycling schemes for tablet computers, but many manufacturers offer take-back programs - for more see Manufacturer programs, below.

Manufacturer programs

Many computer manufacturers have recycling or take-back schemes in place, but only accept products from their own range. Some require you to deposit your gear at an authorised centre, while others cover the cost of postage or collection from your home. The number of manufacturers that accept products from other brands is increasing, but authorised resellers are not required to honour take-back schemes on the manufacturer's behalf. When you buy a computer, mobile phone or tablet, ask the salesperson if the manufacturer has a take-back or recycling program.

For example, Apple offers a versatile recycling program that accepts products (including computers, phones, tablets and portable music players from any manufacturer) subject to certain conditions. It offers a handful of additional incentives such as free recycling when you purchase a new Apple computer or 10 per cent off the cost of a new iPod if you deposit your old one at an Apple store. Phones and iPods won’t incur a recycling charge, and Apple even covers postage costs if you can’t make it to a store. Other companies offer similar incentives, which you can read about in our list of manufacturer programs below. Some operate independently, while others are run in conjunction with the NTCRS or MobileMuster. 


Exactly why is e-waste so bad? Toxic materials and hazardous chemicals may be used in the manufacture of computer and electronic equipment, but when parts are disposed of improperly, these chemicals can leach into soil and water and lead to contamination of the food chain.

Poisonous parts

The roll call of toxic materials is long and includes heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, that can be harmful to humans. Other chemicals found in electronic devices include: 

  • Cadmium is used in batteries and can cause cancer in humans.
  • Beryllium is found in motherboards and is a known carcinogen and can cause lung disorders if inhaled. 
  • Chromium is used to prevent corrosion and can cause liver and kidney damage as well as skin reactions.
  • Antimony can cause gastrointestinal disorders and arsenic is a known carcinogen. 
  • Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are used in circuit boards, cables and plastic casing, while PVC is used in casing and connectors, and mercury in LCD screens. Materials such as BFRs and PVC are toxic when burned and can collect in the environment.

To prevent hazardous chemicals from leaking into soil and draining into storm water pipes, computer and electronic equipment must not be thrown out with your rubbish. Also avoid leaving computer waste standing outside for long periods, particularly during wet weather. Councils usually advise putting rubbish out the night before clean-up. 

While some manufacturers are taking sustainable product design seriously, it's clear that more needs to be done in this area to drastically reduce our e-waste and the environmental issues it presents. However, if you want to keep an eye on the environmental practices of electronics companies and their products, look out for updates to regular reports including:

Guide to Greener Electronics

The Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics assesses the environmental health of electronics companies and includes the top 16 computer, mobile phone, TV and console manufacturers. The survey ranks the companies’ policies on the use of toxic chemicals, energy efficiency, recycling and climate change mitigation and other criteria giving a total score out of 10. You can view the criteria guidelines at Guide to Greener Electronics Ranking Criteria.

The top 10 list, as at November 2012, notes at least one of the positive environmental developments made by each company. Click the company name to download a PDF of their scorecard:

  1. Wipro: extensive phase out of toxic chemicals
  2. HP: phase out of toxic chemicals
  3. Nokia: energy-efficient products
  4. Acer: greatest improvement on energy criteria
  5. Dell: transparent reporting on greenhouse gas emissions
  6. Apple: PVC- and BFR-free products
  7. Samsung: voluntary take-back scheme (overseas)
  8. Sony: energy-efficient products
  9. Lenovo: uses recycled plastics
  10. Philips: reducing PVC and BFRs in products

Green Products Survey

The Greenpeace Green Products Survey asks manufacturers to nominate green products, but not all companies are willing to participate. Of the 21 companies that were asked to submit their greenest products, 18 responded. Apple, Philips and a third unknown company declined the invitation.

The VW-247H-HF monitor by Asus is the greenest product on the list, as it's free from PVC, BFRs, phthalates, antimony and beryllium. In this category, five of the seven monitors submitted were PVC- and BFR-free, compared to one from the previous survey, which shows that manufacturers are making strides in reducing their use of hazardous chemicals. The VW-247H-HF monitor contains two RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) listed chemicals, which illustrates how challenging it is to design truly green products.

The latest survey can be found at Green Products Survey 2011.

EPEAT

The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) is a global consumer resource that rates and compares the environment impact certain computer products have on the environment. The organisation rates products based on a set of environmentally friendly criteria, and determines the greenest of these by issuing bronze, silver or gold medals. Information on EPEAT is available free of charge, and is so well regarded that it’s mandatory for US federal agencies to consult EPEAT when purchasing computer equipment. Participation in EPEAT is voluntary, so the list of manufacturers in the registry may not include the brand you’re considering. You can explore its database at EPEAT.

Sustainable product design

The discussion on recycling and end-of-life issues points to an inevitable question — what about designing more sustainable products in the first place? While many recycling initiatives have begun this process, changing production methods is difficult, lengthy and costly for large-scale manufacturers. Initiatives such as lifecycle analysis help assess the ecological footprint of a product during all parts of its life from resource extraction through to manufacturing, transport, sales and eventual waste. 

There’s some evidence that many big companies are taking positive steps such as phasing out PVC and BFRs. An international report by Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace International and the European Environmental Bureau found many examples of design improvements such as:

  • Sony’s use of lighter components
  • Sharp's better provision for upgrading
  • NEC's use of recycled plastics in computers
  • Toshiba's better design for disassembly of mobile phones for recycling

Sustainable product design needs to include improvements in energy efficiency so that products:

  • draw less power while in use
  • use toxic-free components so that recycling doesn’t pose a threat to the environment and human health
  • can be easily disassembled for recycling
  • reduce unnecessary packaging

Another key element is lengthening the useful life of a product by avoiding unnecessary obsolescence. For example, using software updates to provide additional functionality so that devices don’t have to be replaced so often. However this may require a mind shift on the part of manufacturers that release updated hardware versions of their products frequently. Consumers also have a responsibility to avoid frequent hardware upgrades. We don’t always need the latest and greatest model.


Finally, there’s one more avenue you can pursue — write to the manufacturers of the products you use and let them know how important it is for you, as a paying customer, to buy green and sustainable products and for the company to provide the means to recycle old ones. While the onus is on manufacturers to develop and provide better production mechanisms for safer and less wasteful products, like any other market, consumers drive the next developments. 

Below is a list of national, state and territory refurbishing and recycling information providers and their contact details. Note that not all will take your old equipment.

Refurbishers/recyclers Dropoff option Pickup option Phone
NATIONAL
     
Greenbox
greenbox.com.au
1300 201 010
Green PC
greenpc.com.au

(03) 9418 7400
IT E-Waste
itewaste.com.au


1300 485 865
MRI
mri.com.au
 • 1300 439 278
WorkVentures Connect
workventures.com.au/connectit
1800 112 205
ACT
     
Technical Aid ACT
www.technicalaidact.org.au
(02) 6287 4290
NSW
     
ComputerBank New England
cbne.org.au
(02) 6778 4918
Technical Aid to the Disabled NSW
tadnsw.org.au
  (02) 9912 3400
QLD
     
Technical Aid QLD
tadq.org.au

1300 663 243
VIC
     
Business to Community Recyclers
b2crecyclers.com.au

(03) 9005 0101
Computerbank
computerbank.org.au
•  (03) 9600 9161



The Tic Group
ticgroup.com.au

(03) 9093 6600
WA
     
Computer Recycle IT
recycleit.net.au
 • (08) 9302 6008
C.D. Dodd Scrap Metal Recyclers
recyclers.com.au
(08) 9250 0105
Technical Aid to the Disabled WA
tadwa.org.au
(08) 9379 7400

Some Technical Aid to the Disabled organisations are registered refurbishers, while others may accept donations on a case-by-case basis. If this information is not listed on their website, contact your state's branch and ask if they accept computer donations.

Add another recycler to our list

Do you know of another organisation that recycles or refurbishes computers? Use the feedback form to send us the details, or leave us a comment below.

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