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Computer and Peripherals Material Project

Prepared by Meinhardt Infrastructure & Environment Group
for Environment Australia
October 2001
ISBN 0642547734


8. Environmental Improvement

There are a range of possible options that could be implemented in Australia to achieve environmental gains with respect to computers and peripheral equipment. Opportunities for environmental improvement can be examined in 3 main areas:

These opportunities, both those currently implemented and options for the future, are discussed in the following sections.

8.1 Product Manufacture

Incorporation of the principles of Design for Environment (DfE) has the ability to significantly reduce the environmental impacts of waste computer and peripheral equipment at the initial design and manufacturing stage. DfE can be implemented by computer manufacturers to reduce the types and quantities of waste arising from both the disposal of their products and other elements of the product life cycle (e.g. their manufacture and use).

As discussed in Section 7.2, DfE initiatives have been developed by a number of major equipment manufacturers. However while the majority have adopted some principles, there is a lack of uniformity in adoption of various features of DfE.

The essential components of DfE in the ICT industry are discussed below.

Additional DfE features may include elements of production beyond the scope of this project, e.g. reduction of packaging waste, and the use of more environmentally responsible packaging material.

DfE innovations may lead to the development of products that are specifically labelled and marketed as being environmentally conscious (e.g. Kyocera Mita's laser printers that use long life parts as part of their cartridge-free technology, or IBM's PC with plastic components made entirely from recycled plastics).

It is evident that the major manufacturers in Australia have implemented many of these DfE features into design of equipment undertaken by their international parent company. The issue in Australia is to encourage all manufacturers to implement the full range of DfE criteria within an industry framework.

This may best be developed within an industry code of practice voluntarily agreed to by all manufacturers operating in the Australian market. The code may be developed by the AIIA as an industry program and continual improvement by all manufacturers encouraged.

An essential component of the code will be determining DfE features applicable for Australian conditions and forming arrangement on which should be adopted. This will help establish consistency in the DfE features across the industry as a whole. The code should be consistent with criteria specified in any eco-mark schemes (see Section 8.3.2).

The code of practice could be adopted across the industry in a staged approach with focus initially on the large manufacturers then a roll out to smaller operations.

8.2 End of Life

A wide range of initiatives can be taken at the end-of-life stage of computer and peripheral equipment, with areas of responsibility allocated to different sections of the industry. These initiatives are discussed below.

8.2.1 Take Back Scheme

Collection of printer cartridges is the only established take-back arrangement currently in place in Australia. Cartridge collection may be provided as a value-added service for equipment that is being provided under leasing arrangements. Other companies may be happy to accept returns but may not actively seek them.

International take-back schemes for electrical appliances may offer a model for establishment of a scheme in Australia for computer and peripheral equipment.

The collection of used products by manufacturers occurs in several countries within Europe, Asia and North America, with the majority of programs established within the past decade. These programs have generally been established to comply with local environmental regulations and as such the reuse, recycling and disposal of materials is carried out in accordance with these requirements.

Some programs have also been established voluntarily, both by individual manufacturers and collaborative enterprises involving either multiple manufacturers or manufacturers and Government authorities. International examples of the latter type include the Recycling Guarantee program sponsored by the Swiss Economic Association of Information, Communication and Organization Technology, Belgium's RECUPEL-ICT system that utilizes dealers and municipal container parks for the collection of ICT equipment, and the CONIBI collaborative enterprise established by printer manufacturers to recycle toner cartridges in France.

Arrangements for shipping and transportation vary from being entirely the responsibility of consumers to a fee-for-service arrangement. In the case of printer cartridges, purchased items often include information on the location of recycling centres, and pre-paid addressing information to facilitate shipment to an appropriate location. Costs also vary from free-of-charge to a pre-determined fee paid by consumers to meet transport and treatment costs. Incentives are also offered in some countries (e.g. discounts for the purchase of new equipment or free recycling services with the purchase of new equipment).

The Japanese take-back scheme for consumer electrical appliances incorporates shared responsibility between manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Manufacturers are required to dismantle and recycle components and materials from electrical products, with designated recycling rates for different types of appliances (e.g. 50% of refrigerators, 55% of televisions and 60% of air-conditioners). Recycling may be done at the manufacturer's plant or at a centralised processing centre operated by an independent company and shared by different manufacturers. Retailers are responsible for return and transportation of appliances from consumer to manufacturer. Consumer responsibility is incorporated into the recycling fee paid by them. One part of the fee (the manufacturers' cost) has been set, but additional costs charged by individual retailers and Local Governments are also applicable. The total cost is in the order of 6,000 - 7,000 (or $95 - $110) per appliance; however these are much heavier appliances than computer equipment, and the current fee for computer recycling charged by Hewlett Packard (Japan) of 3,000 (or less than $50) is more relevant to ICT equipment.

Take-back schemes in Australia may therefore be developed along similar lines to international models, as discussed below.

Costs for this service could be met through the imposition of a fee paid up front upon purchase of new equipment or a hidden fee met by manufacturers. This may be on a sliding scale for various equipment (e.g. computers, printers, scanners), related to the recovery cost and revenue return on recovered material. There are a number of issues related to the administration of this bond, e.g. government versus industry administration, responsibility for orphan equipment, fee review period, etc., which would require extensive negotiation prior to implementation. There may also be a need to explore licensing of retailers and other players to operate within the scheme.

Establishing a take-back program would need extensive commitment from the industry and the following areas would need to be addressed:

8.2.2 Reuse & Refurbishment

As part of take-back programs, manufacturers may collect used products and refurbish them for resale. This is currently undertaken by Hewlett Packard in Australia for limited models of laser printers. The limitation placed on certain models of printers reflects one of the major issues manufacturers face: the current lack of interchangeability of components between models, due to the dynamic nature of equipment design.

Re-use of parts in upgraded models can often be problematic due to different dimensions (particularly in laptop computers where the industry trend is to smaller models) or to advances in capabilities (e.g. increased resolution of printers). Options for refurbishment will therefore vary between manufacturers as a function of their existing model range and the degree of dynamism between past and current designs.

Refurbishment of equipment, where possible, will therefore be encouraged through incorporation of the features of Design for Environment (as outlined in Section 8.1) by manufacturers. This is facilitated through the DfE principles concerning ease of upgrading, standardisation and modular design of components.

However there have been some problems experienced in the US in the use of refurbished components in new equipment. A number of large US manufacturers have recently faced lawsuits for using recovered components in equipment sold as "new". Some companies have been challenged legally by competitors for reducing prices to an uncompetitive level through the use of recovered parts (MACREDO 2000).

The ICT industry in Australia therefore needs to establish a cooperative relationship to ensure that similar problems are not encountered here. This competition does not encourage environmental improvement at an industry level.

It was identified during the completion of this project that significant volumes of computer equipment were being deposited at landfills at the instigation of a number of Government departments. This was in response to concerns held on the risk of dissemination of confidential data held on the hard drives of computers, together with liability concerns should equipment such as monitors explode.

Significant volumes of equipment could be diverted from landfill if alternate disposal procedures could be mandated for Government departments. This could include:

The latter could involve determining the volume of surplus requirements in certain sectors and matching it to the needs in particular sectors for second-hand computers, e.g. regional areas, primary or secondary schools, minimum capacity of equipment required. This will allow targeting areas of special need, and preclude provision of equipment that is not suitable (e.g. if 486 capacity is sufficient or not).

Non-profit organisations and commercial companies are heavily involved in reuse and refurbishment of computer equipment in Australia. However the low percentage of computer equipment reused (currently estimated at 26% of obsolete computers) could be further addressed.

Opportunities range from raising consumer awareness to increase participation in reuse programs, to diversion of stockpiled computers while there is still some value in the components for reuse rather than recycling. This could be addressed through a range of initiatives discussed in other sections, e.g. collection programs, industry take-back schemes, provision of infrastructure. Toner cartridges are an area where further participation to recover empties could be enhanced.

In addition, education programs would offer gains in making the reuse industry more robust. Areas that could be targeted include information on the need for consistency and standards (to prevent on-sellers that do not have testing requirements giving refurbished equipment a poor reputation for reliability), the liability for operations such as licensing requirements and other legal issues.

Specific programs to actively encourage pathways for sending equipment to overseas markets for aid (possibly in conjunction with AusAID) would also be beneficial.

8.2.3 Recycling

Studies in the US (MACREDO 2000) have estimated that further development of computer reuse and recycling projects can create approximately 30 jobs per 1,000 tonnes of reused and recycled equipment. This is in addition to the environmental benefit of increased recovery of computer resources. Options for improvement in recycling are related to the materials included in the equipment.

In 1996 a US study determined the typical composition of a PC (refer Table 4.1). The same study also estimated the type and amount of material that could potentially be recovered from a typical desktop PC; this is provided in Table 8.1 below.

Table 8.1 Recoverable Material in PC
Component %
Plastic 23.0
Aluminium 6.3
Steel 20.5
Gold 0.001
Silver 0.02
Lead 6.3
Cadmium 0.01
Mercury 0.0022
Total 56.13

Source: Microelectrics and Computer Technology Corporation

The recoverability of these material types (and glass) is discussed below, including options for recycling not yet established in Australia.

It should be noted that the study did not specify glass as a recoverable material. Additives such as lead and barium to glass used in different sections of the CRT place limitations on the recovery of glass. This does not mean that glass cannot be recovered; however the hazardous nature of lead requires separation of leaded glass from other glass types, and limits the applications that leaded glass can be utilised for.

Table 8.1 shows that the largest single component material potentially recoverable is plastic. However the mix of resin types used and the lack of established markets and end uses has positioned plastic as one of the more challenging areas of computer recycling.

There is some usage in Australia of recycled-content plastic resins, but they are mostly from a single feedstock or from post-industrial (rather than post-consumer) sources. The existing markets for plastic recyclate are limited and are mostly for low-end, low-value applications.

Some potential uses for mixed recycled plastics from electrical and electronic equipment were identified as part of a US EPA project; these are outlined below in Figure 8.1 in order of resin quality required.

Plastic Resin Applications

The use of mixed granulated plastic from waste electrical equipment for road aggregates is well established in the US. Granulated plastic less than 15 mm in diameter and with no significant metal or other contamination is accepted. It is blended with other aggregates and asphalt in a cold mix asphalt emulsion process, where plastic replaces gravel of a similar size in the process. A maximum of 10-20% of plastic is incorporated. The end products are asphalt products, as well as paving and landfill cover.

The Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe (APME) has also undertaken research into the use of plastic from waste computers as a reducing agent and a fuel for smelting of zinc and other non-ferrous metals (APME 2000). The research at a smelter in Sweden is on-going.

One furniture manufacturer in Australia has been using recycled ABS resin for an internal chair mould for almost 30 years. The internal mould provides strength and support to the chair; it is surrounded by padding and fabric, and the appearance of the plastic is not an issue. The appearance is often an issue, however, in a variety of other applications; virgin material can provide colour uniformity, however recycled plastics from a variety of ages and subject to different treatments in its first life are often irregular in colour. This can be overcome by colouring (e.g. IBM's black computer made from recycled plastic) or sandwiching of recyclate between virgin material (e.g. Canon copying machines), however this may not be suitable for all applications.

Some Australian companies are actively seeking recycled plastic for use in their processes (e.g. furniture manufacturing) because of the price benefit. Granulated and sorted plastic computer casings may fetch up to $0.90/kg; re-extruded plastic (i.e. re-granulated and colour added) can fetch between $1.60 - $1.70 per kg. The price of virgin material is quite variable, but can at times be double this price.

Generally, however, the performance of recycled plastics in a range of applications is not well documented, and there is industry reluctance to use a material of unknown quality in preference to virgin material which is often cheaper. Further research and development therefore needs to be undertaken, both to determine alternate uses in Australia for plastic resins used in computers, and to disseminate information across the plastics industry to highlight opportunities for reuse of plastic recyclate. This may best be achieved on an industry-to-industry basis, e.g. liaison by the AIIA with the Plastics and Chemicals Industries Association (PACIA).

The lack of recycling of plastics is also a feature of the structure of the plastics market. Many recycling companies, when seeking a market for their recovered plastics, have directly approached users of plastic resins. However many of these latter companies require the assurance of quality and on-going supply that can only be facilitated through plastics brokers or compounders. Many recyclers (particularly non-profit organisations) therefore need to further develop their understanding of the plastics market, and develop the appropriate networks within the industry structure.

Scrap metal, from computer equipment and a wide range of other applications, has long had a viable recycling market in Australia with well established infrastructure present. While PCBs are likely to be worth more than scrap metal (due to the presence of precious metals such as gold and silver), this additional value is reliant upon the processing of PCBs to extract these metals.

Industry participants advise that PCBs are generally processed overseas (not in Australia), where values received can range from $0.10 to $3.00 per kg. These markets may not be available to all recycling companies, e.g. non-profit organisations, or those companies without an export permit.

While maximum value may not be received through extraction of precious metals, the market for mixed scrap metal is robust (ranging from $150 to $200 per tonne, depending on quality). The maturity of the scrap metal market does not warrant further assistance under this project.

CRT recycling has commonly been difficult and costly to due the presence of two differing types of glass, i.e. the front screen contains barium and the back cone consists of lead glass. The major process for CRT recycling is to wrap a hot wire around the CRT at the interface of the two glass types in order to snap them apart. An alternative method is to smash the cones underwater, which causes the glass types to fracture into different sized pieces which can be separated. However this technique is not as efficient as the hot wire technique, and tends to lead to cross contamination.

Glass from CRT monitors has a range of applications, some of which are at varying stages of development and market penetration. A review of existing and potential applications in the USA was undertaken on behalf of the State of Massachusetts (CCRED 1998); options identified in that study have been reviewed for applicability to the Australian situation and an overview provided in Table 8.2 below.

Many of these options are in the early research or developmental phase. Most glass reuse and recycling options used in other applications are limited by the high concentration of lead in CRTs.

Table 8.2 CRT Glass Recycling Options
Use Category Application Glass Type Market Status
Glass-to-glass remanufacturing CRT glass manufacturing Panel and funnel glass, lead and no-lead glass chemistries Small Australian market potential
Glass-to-glass manufacturing Decorative tiles Co-mingled CRT glass Demonstration phase
Decorative glass products No lead panel glass Low potential
Lighting products No information Unknown
Lead Reuse X-ray shielding products Co-mingled CRT glass International R&D
Industrial glass panels Co-mingled CRT glass Small potential market
Borosilicate cells for nuclear waste encapsulation Leaded glass or co-mingled glass Unknown, likely to be small potential
Lead smelting Co-mingled CRT glass Available market, moderate potential
Glass Aggregate Smelters: lead and copper Co-mingled CRT glass or whole monitors (copper smelter only) Available market, moderate potential
Fibreglass No information No information
Highway reflective products No information No information
Export Refurbishment & resale, glass bottles for pesticides Variable Available market, potential unknown

Adapted from CCRED (1998)

It has been used as a fluxing agent in lead smelters overseas, and there have been preliminary trials undertaken by Pasminco in their Newcastle smelter (although the recent economic downturn experienced by Pasminco is likely to preclude any further efforts in this area). Further research in this area, as with other identified options in Table 8.3, needs to be undertaken to help establish on-going reuse and recycling avenues.

Toner cartridge recyclers are often faced with disposal of large volumes of residue toner from cartridges. This material (a mixture of carbon black and plastic resin) is sometimes used as an energy source for industrial purposes. Other uses include as a carbon additive in steel-making.

The success of all of the above material recycling options depend on the viability of the recycling industry in general. While many companies express doubt over the financial viability of the recycling industry, it includes many successful companies recycling a range of materials. Their continued involvement in recycling of computers and peripheral materials should be encouraged. It is unclear what economy of scale is required to make recycling of computer equipment profitable, however it is acknowledged that viability would be increased if the percentage of equipment recycled was increased. The current low percentage (approximately 1.5% of obsolete equipment) is unlikely to maximise the economies of scale which could be attained given the large volumes of computer equipment circulating in the Australian market.

One method to encourage further recycling participation could be to provide incentive for use of this disposal outlet. This may be through establishment of an industry take-back scheme (which would harness large volumes of equipment) or through a ban on landfill disposal of computer equipment, either in part (e.g. CRTs) or in full. This could also be accomplished through differentiation of landfill disposal costs for computer equipment, i.e. additional costs for landfill deposition versus cheaper costs for sorted, separated computer waste.

8.2.4 Technology

There is a lack of technology used in the separation of computer materials for recycling. Currently the disassembly of computers is very labour-intensive, adding to the costs involved and encouraging off-shore processing where labour costs are less.

There may be avenues for increasing the use of technology in disassembly, reducing the costs involved and helping to establish a more viable recycling industry in Australia. This is likely to involve long-term research and development into suitable technology. Increasing technology may also be best suited to recycling processes rather than at the reuse level. This is seen through the proposed development of two new recycling plants that will incorporate increased automated processing for CRT monitors. Two competing recycling companies have proposed development of these plants; detailed information is therefore subject to commercial sensitivity.

8.3 Market Influences

Consumer expectations play a major role in determining the viability of disposal options. The perceived value of both refurbished computer equipment (i.e. the price that customers are willing to pay for equipment below current entry-level specifications) and disassembled materials (e.g. CRTs and plastics) will directly influence the viability of particular reuse, recycling and remanufacturing processes.

Cost perceptions are also a major consideration, especially in purchase of new equipment. This often overrides purchasing of equipment that may provide better environmental performance. For example, LCDs do not contain as much hazardous material as CRT monitors (e.g. lead solder in the frit), however the additional cost of LCDs has been a major deterrent in uptake by the market. An additional example is printers which use a fewer number of consumables (such as paper or toner cartridges); from a review of the printer market, there is no evidence to suggest that environmentally responsible printers have a significant market share.

Nevertheless market research in other industries suggests that consumers are considering environmental criteria in purchasing decisions. This can be translated to the ICT industry through a whole-of-industry approach to environmental performance and improvement. Methods to assist this are discussed in the following sections.

8.3.1 User Education

The average computer user in Australia is unaware of the scope of the problem of disposal of waste computer equipment. While consumers may be aware of their individual difficulty in locating an appropriate recycling or disposal pathway for their equipment, many do not understand the nature of hazardous materials used in computer manufacture and the requirement for special disposal.

Some international manufacturers provide an assessment of materials used in selected models that they manufacture. On-going education of users on the nature of materials used (e.g. hazardous materials) can be addressed through the provision of environmental information provided by manufacturers with all models. User scrutiny may provide a market incentive for manufacturers to reduce the amount of hazardous material in their products.

Users also lack awareness of the range of reuse and recycling options available to them. A number of international manufacturers of computers and printers provide information online on extending the life of purchased computers (e.g. through upgrades, donations of used PCs, reuse of components, and recycling through local collection programs or asset recovery programs), reducing environmental impacts during product use (eg. minimising printing and using efficiency options within specific printer models) and purchasing at lower environmental cost (e.g. upgrading existing machines and buying second-hand or refurbished machines). However this information is mostly targeted to the US market and generally does not incorporate Australian contacts.

There may be a role for the relevant industry association to facilitate provision of this type of information on an industry-wide basis. An on-line list of businesses and non-profit organisations that reuse and recycle computer equipment may be provided (e.g. on the AIIA web-site www.aiia.com.au or on a stand-alone web-site).

It should be highlighted that education for large volume users (such as the corporate and Government sectors) requires a different approach than consumers at a household level. This may include information at different levels such as:

Consultation with some Australian manufacturers showed that there may be a lack of awareness of the achievements being made by international parent companies in the environmental arena. There may be promotional and market advantages to Australian manufacturers in translating those achievements to the Australian situation.

8.3.2 Environmental Assessment

A review of international manufacturers (Section 7.2) has shown that there is significant support for labelling of products which achieve environmental performance in line with accredited third party schemes. This includes eco-marks such as the Blue Angel and TCO labels. A similar certification scheme, setting environmental criteria for a range of products, could be implemented in Australia through a range of delivery mechanisms. These include:

The new label could be an extension of existing environmental awards in Australia, such as the Banksia Awards. Alternatively it may be established by a respected third party organisation, such as the Australian Consumers Association or an environmental grouping. While this option has not been explored with the Australian Consumers Association, assessment of products against a range of different criteria is already conducted by them as an integral part of the services they provide. They have previously investigated computer and peripheral equipment and are likely to have the systems in place to undertake this role.

Should such an Australian eco-mark be established, it should address the use of consumables, including energy and paper. Energy Star is a feature of many computers; in Australia this program is promoted by authorities such as the Sustainable Energy Development Authority (NSW) and Sustainable Energy Authority (Victoria). This criteria should be incorporated into any new Australian-based eco-mark.

Additional criteria focused on paper use has been floated among some State Government departments. This may potentially be regarded as the paper equivalent of Energy Star, e.g. 'Paper Star'.

8.3.3 Green Procurement

Purchasing policies and specifications which specify criteria that computer equipment must meet can have a significant influence in encouraging adoption of environmental objectives. Initially, these criteria can be set around improving the end-of-life management of products with inclusion of take-back programs requiring reuse and recycling of materials. In the longer term, more DfE criteria can be included with minimum standards for upgrade, etc. incorporated into contracts.

Asset management services are different to take-back programs in the sense that they are professional services offered by a company to manage the disposition of old and obsolete equipment, predominantly from large consumers. Such a service offers inventory management and environmentally responsible disposal of equipment where redundant equipment - often regardless of brand - is collected from customers, resold, refurbished, recycled or disposed of. Services also provide the benefit of resale of assets with marketable value (with a certain percentage of the proceeds retained by the asset management service) and secure procedures for removal of data from redundant equipment. A number of major manufacturers have introduced asset management services in recent years, as have some large auction houses.

Government purchasing power can expedite this due the large sector of the overall computer and peripheral markets. This is demonstrated by government expenditure, with the NSW Government spending $750 million a year on ICT (Office of Information Technology 2001), including hardware, software and support services. It is understood that NSW Government contracts include spending of $65 million on PCs, $15 million on laptop computers, $15 million on servers, $6.25 million on printers, fax machines and toner cartridges, and $5 million on peripherals such as scanners and cabling (Public Works and Services 2001). Similarly ICT is ranked seventh in Government spending in Victoria, at around $90 million per year (Victorian Government Purchasing Board 2000).

In NSW a significant Government contract for supply of PC hardware is out for tender and highlights areas such as labelling components for recycling, energy usage, life expectancy of equipment and take-back of products for recycling or appropriate disposal (Department of Public Works and Services 2001). This represents a significant move in incorporating environmental considerations in purchasing decisions.

8.4 Other

8.4.1 Industry Programs

Given the competitive nature of ICT manufacturers and the small size of the Australian market, there is a major role for the industry association to coordinate environmental improvement programs across the industry. In order to achieve industry-wide gains, initiatives would need to encompass all OEMs and NEDs, regardless of membership status with the industry association. Coverage of both industry sectors is needed in order to capture parallel import of equipment by major retail chains.

Programs which the industry association could address include:

A further option initiated at an industry level could be the establishment of an accreditation scheme for recyclers of electrical and electronic equipment (as being developed by ICER in the UK). This would assist in:

8.4.2 Research and Development

Further research and development into increasing the range of markets available for materials from computer and peripheral equipment is needed. This is particularly important in plastics and glass (especially CRT glass).

While it is acknowledged that CRTs are expected to be replaced by LCDs in market share, the extent of the equipment stockpile shows that disposal of CRTs will remain a challenge in the long-term until alternate markets are found.

There is also a lack of identified product uses and end markets for recovered LCDs. Given that these are expected to show significant growth in the future, research should be initiated in the short-term in order to develop a long-term solution for this material.

Some areas requiring further investigation include:

8.4.3 Collection Infrastructure

The lack of recognition of the size of the waste computer problem has provided few economic incentives to invest in collection systems or infrastructure. ICT manufacturers have been the only stakeholders with an understanding of the waste equipment volumes; however their focus has not traditionally been on disposal, and dissemination of information to players in the waste and/or recycling industry has not been undertaken. Conversely, recyclers and waste companies have considered infrastructure investment to be too risky without a greater certainty of equipment flows.

Because of this lack of data, there has been little analysis undertaken in determining the most suitable methods of collection needed. This should be investigated before the introduction of a take-back scheme or any other industry programs focussed on recovery of waste equipment.

While a number of collection trials have been undertaken overseas, Australia has unique issues (such as distance to recycling markets, small population and markets) which could not be extrapolated from international collections. Trials should be undertaken in Australia to determine the optimum collection method and infrastructure necessary.

Collection systems for different sectors may include:

A combined collection trial similar to that undertaken by the MOEA in Minnesota (refer Section 7.3) may be the optimum method to test the success of different collection systems in a range of locations. This would involve a range of participants (including retailers, Local Governments, waste management contractors and recycling companies) contributing their services to a number of collection events, ranging from one-day household hazardous waste collections to month-long drop-off collections, within a longer program.

8.4.4 Landfill Ban

Given the hazardous nature of computer equipment, the simplest way to keep waste equipment out of landfills and prevent possible contamination of the surrounding environment is to ban them from landfill deposition.

Some industry participants have raised the possibility of banning CRTs only from landfill deposition, on the basis that this component of computer equipment contains the greatest amount of lead (including lead oxide in soluble form, which is the most likely form to migrate into landfill leachate). This would also stop leaded glass from monitors also adding to the lead load of landfills.

It should not be forgotten, however, that other components of computer equipment contain lead and, in fact, many other heavy metals that can prove harmful to human health and the environment. A ban on disposal of CRTs would not preclude lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and other hazardous materials contained in the CPU, PCBs and cabling from being deposited in landfills and posing an environmental risk.

Based on the amount of hazardous material in a typical computer (refer Section 4.1) and the estimates of equipment landfilled (refer Section 3.3), aggregate figures of hazardous materials likely to be entering Australian landfills in 2001 have been derived in Table 8.3 below. It is estimated that in 2001 over 77,000 m3 of landfill airspace will be utilised by waste computers.

Table 8.3 Hazardous Materials Landfilled 2001
Material Tonnes/annum
Antimony 5.2
Arsenic 0.7
Barium 17.4
Beryllium 8.7
Cadmium 5.2
Chromium 3.5
Cobalt 8.7
Lead 3,479.2
Mercury 1.2
Nickel 469.7
Selenium 0.9
Silver 10.4
Vanadium 0.1
TOTAL 4,010.9

The total hazardous material of 4,010 tonnes is expected to increase to over 7,200 tonnes by 2006. However, as mentioned in Section 3.3 with regard to the estimates of volumes of computers landfilled, this is a baseline only and the actual volumes may be much higher.

Banning only CRTs would also not address the majority of computer and peripheral waste generated. Collection trials conducted in numerous locations around the world have shown that CRTs only represent an estimated one-third of the computer waste disposed of. This reflects the historic focus of manufacturers on upgrading attributes of the CPU (e.g. processing capacity, response time) rather than visual display. Monitors have generally been interchangeable when upgrading computer models.

There are also likely to be logistical problems at landfills in putting into practice such a differentiation between different components of computer equipment. There may also be issues of identification of the source of a CRT (e.g. computer or television), especially where scrap parts of equipment are presented for disposal. Identification would be especially problematic with relation to cabling; there is great similarity in the cables used for telecommunication and information technology purposes, and differences would not be readily apparent to landfill operators. Any ban on CRTs would therefore need to encompass CRTs not just from computers, but from all sources of electrical and electronic equipment, and there would also need to be distinct differentiation between which components are acceptable and those which are not.

To ban computer equipment (whether solely CRTs or all components) from landfills, would require it to be handled as a hazardous waste. Under current State and Territory regulations, this generally requires special handling, transport and management arrangements to be undertaken. This may require transportation to be carried out only by licensed operators and impose tracking requirements on the movement of computer equipment. Categorisation as a hazardous waste, in short, would impose significant expense across a number of layers of computer disposal.

Other issues of a possible landfill ban arise from where, barring landfill disposal, computer equipment could be disposed of. Unless alternative disposal options were in place, illegal dumping of large volumes of waste computer equipment is likely to occur. Such a ban would not be feasible without a mature computer recycling industry able to accept and process the significant volumes of equipment likely to be directed to them. That is not presently the case. There are currently gaps in markets for particular materials (e.g. plastics). Manual processing is still prevalent (due to the small volume of recycled equipment) and the industry is not sufficiently automated to be able to handle large volumes.

If a landfill ban was considered as the necessary impetus for development of computer recycling, all States would need to agree on a consistent structure for implementation. A phased implementation would help address the lack of recycling market maturity as a disposal outlet in the short term.

Financial incentives for diversion from landfill could be utilised instead of a regulatory ban on deposition. This may involve a price differential on gate fees where sorted and uncontaminated computer equipment is segregated for recycling at landfills and transfer stations. However the variety of gate fees across Australia (on both a State and regional basis) and the involvement of private industry in facility operation makes direct intervention by Government on gate fees a complex issue. Controlling gate fees would require establishment of an environmental levy; as with a regulated landfill ban, this would require the cooperation of all Governments at Local, State and Commonwealth level to implement.