Australia's builders can't rely on government policy to address the nation's rising e-waste problem. The time has come to devise and implement strategies capable of delivering real solutions.
Australia has a mounting e-waste problem. The fastest growing waste stream in the world, electronic waste – defined as anything with a plug or a battery – is forecast to double over the next decade as increased digitisation results in more products with shorter life cycles.
This issue has, in part, been overlooked for some time by industrial systems that use weight as a primary indicator of a stream's contribution to overall waste figures. While it is true that the weight of e-waste is relatively less than other streams (though, at 485,000 tonnes as of 2017, it is still a significant contributor) the threat it poses to the environment is much greater.
Many electric products contain hazardous materials such as mercury, lead and arsenic that can end up in the water, air and soil if the item is disposed of incorrectly. This scenario also means the precious metals present in these items can't be recycled. Organisations that require these materials therefore have to increasingly rely on mining operations, resulting in even more environmental damage.
Two Australian states have already banned the dumping of e-waste into landfill - South Australia in 2013 and Victoria in 2019. The move is an important one, especially after the implementation of China's National Sword policy forced the nation to abandon the 'out of sight, out of mind' approach to waste management that has dominated since the 1970s. Still, it is not enough to rely on government policy to create change. Policy merely sets the foundation. The potential for actual change lies, to a great degree, with builders and other operators in the built environment who are responsible for the creation and initial management of this waste.
There are three initial considerations that builders must take into account in order to deliver real solutions:
Best waste management practice is not reactive. It is not a concern to be addressed only when e-waste is created, such as at the conclusion of a new lighting fitout or when electronic tools break down and can't be repaired. A plan for dealing with this waste must be in place before work even starts. A range of Australian waste management and recycling companies offer specific solutions for e-waste and are often a good first point of contact in the case of major projects.
In conjunction with its e-waste ban, the Victorian government has launched an initiative increasing access to e-waste collection sites. More than 130 recycling centres are in the process of receiving upgrades that will put 98 percent of metropolitan Victorians within a 20-minute drive of an e-waste disposal point. No matter what region you are in, however, a quick web search is likely to provide a convenient list of nearby facilities designed to handle e-waste.
Education is a critical tool when it comes to making proper waste management an instinctual process for all. Unfortunately, education is often provided on a limited scale and to the wrong parties. Sure, the waste industry should understand how new government policy will affect e-waste management, but what about contractors who are moving from site to site and are used to a particular routine? Who is guiding them through the changes and making sure new policies are followed?
In these cases, it is up to project managers and organisational leaders to direct good behaviour. Signage and the provision of appropriate resources such as e-waste bins can make a difference, but nothing beats direct communication. Take the time to get everyone together to help them better understand their responsibilities and capacity to correctly manage waste.
Don't just say it; do it. Develop initiatives that will encourage the right habits on and off site.
Here's an example of how you can do just that: the average Australian household produces 73 kilograms of e-waste every year, but this waste often ends up stuffed at the back of a drawer or on a shelf in the garage. You may launch an internal campaign calling on your employees to bring their old electronics from home so that they can be recycled by a partnering service provider. Everybody benefits – employees do the right thing without having to make much effort and employers promote behaviour that will provide tangible benefits to site waste management.
E-waste is a serious problem that affects all Australians. As is the case with all such problems, we cannot sit idly by waiting for the government to take care of it. Those of us operating in the nation's built environment have the power to make a real difference by being proactive in our approach to e-waste management and encouraging others to follow our lead.
It's time to get to work.
E-waste management is one of many topics on the agenda at Waste Expo Australia when it runs in Melbourne 23 and 24 October. For all the information, click here.
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