Computers, smartphones, tablets and so on are an integral part of daily life, but as they 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. It doesn't just happen in landfill either. Computers sitting on the curb for collection can also leak, particularly during wet weather.
On an individual level, personal data can be harvested from hard drives that have not been wiped and disposed of correctly. Also, the sheer amount of waste that goes into landfill every year is staggering.
How much e-waste is produced?
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, as much as 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste is produced every year. As of 2019, just 20 percent of that is recycled using any sort of formal process. Much of this waste is processed by hand in developing nations which exposes workers to hazardous chemicals.
The UN's data also shows that:
- In 2017, the amount of e-waste worldwide equated to six kilograms per person.
- As of 2019, we generate more than 50 million tonnes of e-waste every year. That's more mass than the combined total of every commercial aircraft ever built.
- Annual global e-waste amounts of a value of over $62.5 billion.
- As much as seven percent of the world's gold is thought to be in e-waste.
These numbers are largely estimates. The actual amount is thought to be much higher as a lot of e-waste disposal is difficult to track. Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can do your bit by recycling electronic waste safely and securely. Everything from old tower PCs to smartphones and tablets can be reused, repurposed or recycled.
Getting rid of your old tech safely is easier than it might seem. There are government supported recycling services, charities and even independent businesses that will take your old gear off your hands. However, they are unlikely to accept hazardous or dangerous items.
Recycling Near You
Recycling Near You is one stop shop for all the e-cycling information you need. It's an excellent, gigantic database administered by Planet Ark that lists recycling information, drop-off locations and curbside collection contact information relative to your postcode. This includes government-backed services, charities and private organisations. You can search each relevant database at these links:
Government services – the NTCRS
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.
You can recycle most e-waste products at NTCRS drop-off points, including:
- Laptops, notebooks and tablets
- Desktop computers (aka towers or personal computers)
- Central processing units (CPUs. Note the NTCRS does not accept any other computer parts)
That said, drop-off points may not accept all items covered under the scheme for one reason or another, so it's worth calling ahead before you haul everything down. For a full list of accepted products, head to the NTCRS website.
TechCollect partners with businesses to create e-waste drop-off points.
Four organisations coordinate recycling on behalf of the scheme. You can find your nearest drop-off point or collection service by visiting one of their websites:
The Recycling Near You database also highlights registered TechCollect partners. Look for the TechCollect logo when searching the database to find official NTCRS drop-off points, as these are more likely to accept any e-waste you bring in.
Many state and local governments also have their own schemes or collection events in place. Sydney City Council runs a free collection service, for example. Visit your council website for any local services that may be operating.
Smartphones are full of recyclable materials including rare, valuable metals such as gold, silver, platinum and copper. 99% of these can be reused if you recycle your phone correctly. They may wind up in new tech products, or they could have a new life as something entirely different. For example, the plastic used in mobile phone casing can be processed into pellets which is used to make products like pallets. Not only does this mean less plastics are being produced, it cuts down on the energy required to make new plastics as recycling is far more efficient.
Mobile Muster is the main mobile phone recycling service in Australia. It's a free industry-backed organisation that recycles mobile phones, smartphones, phone batteries and accessories. The program operates across Australia at many major retailers and businesses such as Australia Post. All you need to do is box up your old phone and drop it in the collection bin.
There's also a free mail in option that's run in conjunction with Australia Post:
- Most new phones sold in Australia come with a pre-paid Mobile Muster bag in the box that you can use to return your old device.
- You can also request a free, pre-paid postage label by filling out the post back form online. Once it arrives you just pack up your phone, stick the label on and pop it in a red post box.
The Recycling Near You database lists Mobile Muster drop-off points in your area.
Though batteries are present in just about everybody's day-to-day lives, recycling them can be a little tricky. Smartphone batteries are covered by Mobile Muster but NTCRS partners may not accept your e-waste until the battery is removed. That's why you have to look elsewhere. Recycling Near You and the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI) list locations that will safely recover and recycle your batteries.
Mainstream consumer batteries such as AA, AAA, 9V and so on can't go in the bin when they die. IKEA and ALDI provide free disposal bins in store for these types of batteries. Anyone can use them, even if you're not a customer. However, they will not take computer, smartphone etc, car or industrial batteries.
Just because you've outgrown your equipment doesn't mean someone else can't use it. There are a handful of organisations that refurbish old computers for people experiencing disadvantages, who may not be able to afford technology that's become an essential part of modern life.
You can't just pop down to your local Vinnies or Salvos Store and drop off an old computer that needs work. However, you can get in touch with community groups that will handle the refurb and donate it to local organisations and charities. Recycling Near You and Technical Aid to the Disabled (TAD) can point you in the right direction.
Though manufacturers used to run their own consumer recycling schemes, most have since partnered with Mobile Muster and the NTCRS. It makes sense, after all, consolidation is easier for the consumer and manufacturers can let professional e-cycling organisations handle the work. But some still run their own programs as an alternative.
An aging desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet may be lacking the grunt required to meet your daily demands. But old equipment can still be useful for jobs that require a little less processing power.
Smartphones and tablets often find new life as a universal remote to control smart devices, and their various apps, around the home. You can also use them to play music and video from streaming services or a home server and cast to compatible devices.
It's not uncommon to see an old iPad attached to the wall as a digital calendar or family planner either, and you can save a bundle on baby monitors by mounting a phone/tablet with a monitoring app above the bassinet instead.
If you're looking for something a little more advanced, you can turn an old computer into a home server, also known as network attached storage or a NAS. Though they have a number of applications, consumers typically use them for automated backup, home security that connects to your network enabled security cameras or as a media server.
The last feature is particularly popular as media servers can run on low performance systems compared to the demands of day-to-day tasks. All you need is a lot of storage but that's just a matter of upgrading the hard drives. Then, with a bit of networking know-how, you can beam movies, TV shows, music and more to all your entertainment devices around the house.
Of course, there's always the option to upgrade or replace broken parts but that's only really open to tech-savvy sorts that own desktop "tower" PCs. Tech hand-me-downs are also a great way to introduce kids to their first smartphone or computer, before they're old enough (aka responsible enough) to own a new model.
The fear of personal data ending up in the wrong hands is holding people back from recycling, according to a 2017 study by 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.
Though there is a corporate responsibility for manufacturers to make greener products, the onus is still on consumers to recycle or repurpose their old tech. Fortunately privacy fears can be allayed by simply wiping the hard drive.
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 options > Erase all data (factory reset) > Delete all data. Enter password, if needed.
Windows and macOS methods vary depending on the operating system. You may have an older version of Windows or macOS on the computer you want to recycle, so the steps in these drop down menus cover the last few iterations of each brand.
Bear in mind that these methods will wipe all of your personal data, but the operating system can still be reinstalled using recovery tools. So while all of your personal information is gone, technically the drives aren't completely cleaned and that's not good enough for some people.
There is one more method that's not for the faint of heart but it does garuntee complete data destruction including the operating system. Darik's Boot and Nuke or DBAN is a popular open-source program that completely obliterates the data on your drive beyond the point of recovery, but using it requires a bit of tech know-how.
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
- 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
- have better provisions for upgrading components so an entire device does not need to be disposed of when one part breaks.
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.
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 (2017) 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.
You can read the full report card for free at the Greenpeace website, but in terms of companies operating in Australia:
- Apple is the only manufacturer with a reasonable overall score of B-, scoring well for its work to renewable energy but stumbling thanks to to poor commitment to sustainable resource design and high-turnover due to short periods of planned obsolescence.
- Amazon, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi all fail due to poor or non-existent policies and limited transparency.
- Every other major manufacturer sits between C+ and D-.
While major brands may be making positive steps towards managing e-waste, a lot more work needs to be done at the manufacturing end, especially since technology is now an integral part of our daily lives.