While only a very small part by weight or volume of the overall waste stream, e-waste (discarded electronic equipment) is a type of waste with a unique set of challenges and opportunities.
It often contains a wide range of potentially hazardous materials, such as lead, cadmium and mercury that create the risk of environmental contamination if not disposed of properly.
Some of the other materials that go into electronic equipment on the other hand are extremely rare and valuable. There is more gold in a ton of mobile phones than in a ton of gold ore – and extracting it from discarded phones doesn’t come with the high environmental price tag of mining.
Modern electronic equipment also contains a range of rare metals from the dark reaches of the periodic table that most of us have never heard of. The global supply of many of these metals is running low and given that a number of them are important components of solar cells this is of serious concern.
The City of Sydney has made a small step towards dealing with e-waste by holding quarterly collections of this material at our works depot in Ultimo, however there’s a lot more we could do. Collections that occur only once every few months are going to result in a lot of residents simply not bothering and just throwing their e-waste out with the general garbage, where contamination issues won’t be properly dealt with and valuable materials won’t be recycled.
When I was attending the Nagoya biodiversity summit last year I spoke to representatives of the City of Kyoto and was told about a highly popular e-waste recycling program that’s run there. A recycling station has been set up in the City Hall which receives a constant stream of electronic goods that would otherwise be destined for landfill. The drop off station takes all types of small electronic items, from laptops to ipods and mobile phones.
I feel such a facility in Sydney would also be very popular – if located in a prominent place like Town Hall House residents could simply bring in their old electronic equipment for recycling whenever they visit the CBD, they wouldn’t have to hoard it and wait for collection days as they do now.
At last Monday’s Council meeting I moved a motion that the City set up such a facility and was glad to see it seconded by the Lord Mayor and passed unanimously. It’ll be great to see this small but important component of our City’s waste dealt with more appropriately in the future.