Computers are an integral part of daily life, but as they and other electronic devices become obsolete more and more quickly, we're faced with the growing problem of disposing of all our e-waste properly. Electronic products thrown into landﬁll leak toxic materials into soil and water, resulting in contamination of the food chain, while rare and non-renewable materials are wasted instead of being re-used.
Toxic materials and hazardous chemicals are often used in the manufacture of computer and electronic equipment, and when parts are disposed of improperly these chemicals can leach into soil and water and lead to environmental contamination.
- To prevent hazardous chemicals from leaking into soil and storm water drains, don't throw out computer and electronic equipment with your rubbish.
- Avoid leaving computer waste standing outside for long periods, particularly during wet weather.
Chemicals in your computer (and other devices)
While manufacturing methods are said to have improved, many companies continue to use toxic chemicals and primary materials over recycled parts.
The roll call of toxic materials is long and includes:
- Mercury (used in LCD screens)
- Cadmium (used in batteries) – known to cause cancer in humans
- Beryllium (found in motherboards) – a known carcinogen and can cause lung disorders if inhaled
- Chromium (used to prevent corrosion) – can cause liver and kidney damage as well as skin reactions
- Antimony – can cause gastrointestinal disorders
- Arsenic – a known carcinogen
- Brominated ﬂame retardants (used in circuit boards, cables and plastic casing) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (used in casing and connectors) – toxic when burned and can collect in the environment.
How much e-waste is produced?
Though tracking the exact amount is difficult, around 43.8 million tonnes of e-waste was produced in 2015 according to the United Nations University Step (Solving the e-Waste Problem) Initiative in its Step Initiative 2015/16 Annual Report, and research from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggests that this has had an annual increase of five to ten percent. Australians contribute more than their fair share of that, by generating approximately 600,000 tonnes of e-waste every single year.
Getting rid of your old tech safely is easier than it might seem. There are many government, charitable, manufacturer and industry options. Whichever you choose, make sure you delete your personal data off the device before you dispose of it.
The National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) lets homes and small businesses dispose of their computers, computer components (keyboards, monitors, mice, etc.) and TVs at drop-off points in each state and territory, free of charge. Under the scheme, any company that makes or imports TVs or computers into Australia is required to pay for the end-of-life recycling of their products. For a full list of drop-off points, opening times and additional information, visit one of these sites:
- National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme
- Recycling Near You run by Planet Ark. It lets you search by area or product to find a local recycling centre.
Many state and local governments also have their own schemes in place. It's worth checking out your council website for any local services that may be operating.
Industry and manufacturer programs
- 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, or you can post them your old phone for recycling.
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 computer at an authorised centre, while others cover the cost of postage or collection from your home. Some are run in conjunction with the NTCRS or MobileMuster.
Many local computer retailers and repair shops will also accept e-waste or old computers they can refurbish and re-sell.
If your computer's not too old and still in good nick, there are some community recycling initiatives that refurbish computers and offer them to nonprofit groups.
- Technical Aid to the Disabled. They can point you towards a number of registered refurbishers, or small businesses that accept donations on a case-by-case basis.
- Business to Community Recyclers (Vic)
- Computerbank (Vic)
- Computerbank (Qld)
Recycling Near You also lists local charities that accept tech donations.
Ever wondered about the green credentials of your computer, or any one of the many tech devices you own? Some manufacturers helpfully provide environmental information on their websites to explain their recycling schemes and green credentials, while others don't give much away. This can make it difficult to compare between brands without having consistent information on their environmental impact.
Greenpeace has been producing the Guide to Greener Electronics since 2006 and has been tracking how the largest consumer electronics companies are managing their environmental impact. The latest report ranks 17 companies on three critical measures – energy, resource consumption and chemicals.
- Energy rates the reduction of greenhouse gases though efficiency and renewable energy.
- Resource consumption focuses on sustainable design and the use of recycled materials.
- Chemicals rates the elimination of hazardous chemicals in the products and in manufacturing.
The good, the bad and the downright dirty
- Supply chains lack transparency.
- Dell and Fairphone provide supplier details on their websites.
- Huawei has nothing about supply chain greenhouse gas emissions.
- Little reporting on what is collected in e-waste programs or where it goes upon collection.
- Samsung lagging on renewable energy.
- Amazon remains one of the least transparent.
- Only Apple and Google products are free of potentially hazardous chemicals such as brominated flame retardants (BFR) and PVC (or vinyl) across their product lines.
- Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung not embracing sustainable design.
- HP, Dell, and Fairphone producing a growing number of repairable and upgradable products.
- Only Apple, Dell, Google, HP and Microsoft list the manufacturing restricted substances list (MRSL) to limit concentration of certain chemical substances in manufacturing their devices.
In its simplest way, recycling is just a matter of dropping your old mobile phone or batteries off at your nearest library, or perhaps checking with your local council about its e-waste collection. This does mean finding the time to go out and recycle your device, or just doing a bit of research to find the drop-off point – both of which may be impediments to recycling. However, many of us have more serious reservations about recycling – and it's got to do with the sophistication of these devices and the concern over the amount of our information they may contain.
The fear of personal data ending up in the wrong hands is holding people back from recycling, according to research from industry recycling scheme TechCollect. It found the average Australian household has approximately 17 electronic devices in the home, while only 23% of us always recycle them. The reasons for not recycling included the fear of losing personal data or data getting into the wrong hands, not knowing where to recycle devices, not knowing e-waste could be recycled, and having to pay to have their device properly recycled.
TechCollect wants to encourage consumers to let go of old devices they're no longer using or which are broken beyond repair. It's urging people to overlook the sentimental value of once-loved devices and instead see the non-renewable resources that could be re-used in other devices if they're recycled correctly. The onus on device users to embrace and accept recycling will only become more urgent with the growth in e-devices.
While not wanting to put too much of the burden on consumers, it's necessary to see recycling as part of the lifecycle of device ownership. Let's not ignore the need for manufacturers to do their bit by designing upgradable devices, embracing third-party repair services and even, shock, horror, slowing down the upgrade cycle from the annual unrelenting pace that's become the norm.
How do you wipe your devices?
Smartphone and tablets can be reset to factory settings with a few simple steps.
- iPhone and iPads: Settings > General > Reset and then choose 'Erase All Content and Settings'. Enter Apple ID, if needed.
- Android devices: System > Reset. Then Factory data reset > Reset phone or Reset tablet > Erase everything. Enter password, if needed.
While some manufacturers are taking steps to design more sustainable electronics, more needs to be done to reduce our e-waste. We can do our bit by buying greener products.
Greener computers and electronics should:
- draw less power while in use (we include energy-efficiency results in our desktop computer reviews and laptop reviews)
- use toxic-free components
- be easy to disassemble for recycling
- reduce unnecessary packaging
- use lighter components and recycled plastic
- have better provisions for upgrading software that provides additional functionality without hardware upgrades
The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) rates and compares the environmental impact of computer products on the environment. Based on its set of environmentally friendly criteria it issues bronze, silver or gold medals.
Information on EPEAT is available free of charge and is well regarded, so much so it's even mandatory for US federal agencies to consult EPEAT when buying computer equipment. Participation in EPEAT is voluntary, so it may not include the brand you're considering.