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E-waste exports highlight need for tighter controls on 'unethical and irresponsible' trade
Reports that a defunct computer screen dropped at Officeworks for recycling was shipped to a junkyard in Thailand have renewed calls for Australia to get serious about e-waste controls.
Under current laws any such waste should have been sent to an approved recycler which recycles e-waste safely to avoid serious toxic effects on humans and the environment.
E-waste watchdog Basel Action Network (BAN) last week reported they had used GPS trackers to trace the journey of the electronic equipment to a recently operating "dioxin factory" in a rural area surrounded by crops such as rice and mangoes.
According to BAN, "e-waste was first broken apart and then the removed circuit boards were processed en masse with crude chemical and smelting techniques in an effort to extract the gold and copper".
The UN-funded report documents bags of circuit boards, chemicals and ash at the site, which BAN said indicated "primitive" e-waste recycling practices had taken place.
E-waste expert Libby Chaplin of Arcadian Solutions said the export documented by BAN had "likely" broken an international convention governing trade in hazardous waste.
"It smells a lot like it's a violation of the Basel Convention," she said.
Ms Chaplin works to develop systems for industry around the world to stop e-waste ending up in unregulated recycling facilities.
She also supports calls from BAN and others for Australia to sign up to a global agreement called the Basel Ban Amendment, which would commit countries to end the shipment of e-waste to such facilities.
"These shipments are unethical and irresponsible," Ms Chaplin said.
An ABC investigation last year suggested container loads of e-waste were being sent to Ghana from Australia every month, including a Westpac computer monitor that ended up in a toxic African dump torn apart by children.
So far, 78 countries — including the UK, China and the those in the European Union — support the Basel Ban Amendment.
According to BAN, support from only three more countries is required before it becomes law.
E-waste policy mess
But international agreements won't be of any use without better tightening and enforcement of Australia's own laws, said Ashleigh Morris from sustainable business consultancy The Circular Experiment.
Ms Morris, who has studied e-waste policy around the world, said Australia was lagging behind.
According to Ms Morris our e-waste controls are a messy mix of voluntary industry codes, a national hazardous waste law and e-waste recycling scheme, and inconsistent state and local council regulations.
There is a lack of clarity about who is responsible for what, and all this makes prosecutions very difficult, Ms Morris said.
"There are a lot of loopholes," she said, adding that much waste ends up in Africa because it's shipped for re-use, but ends up as waste.
"It is appalling what happens overseas with our e-waste," said Ms Morris.
Ms Chaplin agreed.
"I really do believe if it was happening in our backyard we would be absolutely horrified. The levels of lead poisoning that is happening in some of these communities is really serious."
Both Ms Morris and Ms Chaplin argue there needs to be much better tracking and spot checks of exports.
"Government and industry could be doing tracking like the Basel Action Network," said Ms Chaplin, who is also head of the Australian battery recycling initiative.
"Better tracking is in the interest of people who have a sense of corporate social responsibility."
Australia is estimated to produce hundreds of thousands of tonnes of e-waste a year and most of it does not have a dedicated recycling scheme.
This means much is ending up in landfill.
Under the national e-waste recycling scheme, set up in 2011, industry funds the recycling, so consumers don't have to. But it only covers televisions, computers and associated paraphernalia.
BAN's tracking project involved deploying 35 GPS trackers on material covered by the scheme. It found 40 per cent of trackers were recycled and over 14 per cent went to landfill. Another tracker ended up in Hong Kong, although when they got there to check, they say the site had been cleaned out and was likely just a temporary staging area.
Challenges and solutions
Ms Morris said developed countries like Australia have strict laws to protect workers from hazardous materials and this makes it a cheaper option to export e-waste to places where those protections don't exist.
E-waste collector Geordie Gill of 1800 EWASTE in Sydney does not participate in the national e-waste recycling scheme.
He says it does not pay recyclers enough for what they are expected to do, and this puts pressure on them to cut corners, including selling e-waste to developing countries.
"We get offered to send containers overseas, but I don't do it," said Mr Gill, who said he had been offered as much as $20,000 per shipping container of e-waste.
According to Mr Gill, doing the right thing costs more money, which is why he charges for collection even though that means he misses out on some contracts.
"The company that charges the least amount of money gets the bid," he said.
"It frustrates me that people export [for cheaper unregulated recycling] and can get away with it."
Ms Morris said the cost of recycling an electronic product should be built into its sale price.
And, she said, Australia should follow the lead of countries like France, which is moving against products that are made to break within a few years.
"Most of our products, like laptops, are made to break in three years," she said.
"We're allowing the market to generate an enormous amount of waste. We have to change the way we've always done things."
Report findings 'disappointing'
Officeworks managing director Mark Ward said the company was "disappointed in the findings of the report".
"We're working with our supplier, who has government accreditation, to ensure that e-waste collected in our stores is recycled safely and appropriately," he said in a statement to the ABC.
"We have a long-standing commitment to making a positive difference in the world in which we work, live and operate. We would never knowingly illegally or unethically dump waste," the Officeworks statement said.
The Department of the Environment and Energy told the ABC it was aware of the alleged transboundary movement of e-waste to Thailand and Hong Kong.
"The allegation was only received recently and the Department is considering it further," a statement from the Department said.
"In regards to the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme the costs associated with its running are set by industry and are independent of government."