It will take more than government policy to address Australia’s mounting e-waste problem. Leaders in the nation’s built environment must step up if real change is to be made.
Australia has a serious 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 one indicator of a stream’s contribution to overall waste figures.
While it’s true that the weight of this waste is rising slower in relation to the quantity of e-waste items being sent to landfill (which, at an estimated 485,000 tonnes in 2017, is still by no means insignificant) the threat it poses is severe. Many electric products contain hazardous materials such as mercury, lead and arsenic that, when the item is dumped or stored incorrectly, can end up in the soil, water or air. This scenario also means that the precious metals used in these devices cannot be recycled. Organisations that require these materials therefore have to increasingly rely on mining operations that damage the environment even further.
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 facility managers and other operators in the built environment.
Below are three ways in which facility managers can foster this much-needed change:
Best waste management practice is not reactive. It is not a concern to be addressed only when e-waste is created, such as when a computer network has been upgraded or a new lighting fitout is reaching completion. Before work actually begins, project managers must already have a plan in place for dealing with the waste. 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 the office that provides new mobile phones to employees on an annual basis, or the retail operator looking to upgrade an AV system? In these cases, the impetus is placed on facility managers 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. Connect with building users to help them best understand their responsibilities and capacity to cut down on waste.
Don’t just say it; do it. Develop initiatives that will encourage the right habits in and out of your building.
Here’s one 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. Facility managers may launch a campaign calling on building users to bring their old electronics from home so that they can be recycled by a partnering service provider. Everybody benefits – users do the right thing without having to make much effort and facility managers promote behaviour that will provide tangible benefits to building operations.
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. Facility managers have the power to make a real difference by being proactive in their approach to waste management and encouraging others to do the same.
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.
Image: 123RF’s Iryna Moroz, © 123RF.com