Electronic waste (e-waste) is a rapidly growing source of environmental pollution in the Pacific region where it is being dumped in wetlands or landfill, or burnt.

E-waste includes many toxics chemicals, including:

  • lead and cadmium in circuit boards and monitor cathode ray tubes (CRTs);
  • mercury in switches and flat screen monitors; and
  • brominated flame retardants on printed circuit boards, plastic casings and cables.
  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC) cable insulation that release highly toxic dioxins and furans when burned to retrieve copper from the wires.

These toxic chemicals and heavy metals are very persistent, very toxic and bioaccumulate (build up) in all living things, including us. They are mobile in soil,  water and leachate.  Leachate is the contaminated liquid that seeps from the electronic goods when they are buried in the ground and are in contact with rainwater or groundwater.

Once released to air these chemicals travel vast distances on air currents and deposit in colder climates contaminating communities and their environments. These toxic chemicals are referred to as ‘poisons without passports’.

Serious pollution from poorly managed e-waste recycling centres has already contaminated groundwater, air, soil and people in many parts of China and Africa.

Managing e-waste

Manufacturers must take responsibility for e-waste. This must be mandated through legislation similar to that passed in the European Union (EU) requiring producers to take back their electronic equipment at the end of its useful life.

If the manufacturer is not part of a take back program, e-waste should be sent to a recognised recycler, who does not export it to developing countries, a practice which is illegal in Australia. There are fines under the provisions of the Australian Hazardous Waste Act for anyone found to be exporting e-waste to developing countries. Many developing countries have banned the import of e-waste.

The ultimate solution to e-waste is in the design of the products. Hazardous chemicals such as heavy metals and brominated flame retardants should not be incorporated into plastics used in mobile phones, computers and related equipment. Effective alternatives exist for most applications and manufacturers should adhere to the EU Register of Hazardous Substances (RoHs) Directives.

Individuals should limit their consumption of new electronics and companies should not build in ‘obsolescence.’ Products should be designed to accommodate ‘upgrades’ more easily to increase their useful life-span.

Australia should increase its capacity for environmentally sound recycling of old products rather than rely on export of e-waste to Korea and France for recycling. As these are OECD countries it is not illegal.

The export of functioning used equipment to developing countries should also require the return of the  computers to the producer or country of origin at the end of their life.

In November 2006, the World Summit on e-waste was held in Nairobi and established working groups to tackle the problem of e-waste.

Read more: E-waste in the Pacific : The Rising Tide Fiji and Samoa

IPEN E-waste Working Group