New role for tubby tellies
An e-waste program is set to give our obsolete cathode ray sets an extreme makeover.
"'Why is that television fat?'' my girlfriend's young son says, pointing to an old cathode ray tube television sitting in our lounge room.
The eight-year-old set isn't plugged in; it's just for show, so the TV unit doesn't look bare. If we're honest about it, we probably haven't offloaded it yet for nostalgia's sake, to reminisce about the days of the ''box''.
Our television relic sits two rooms away from its shiny new LCD replacement (to avoid shame and embarrassment), and serves as a shrine of sorts to electronics past.
But things are about to change for our old fat box, because of TechCollect, a free e-waste collection service organised by the Australia and New Zealand Recycling Platform (ANZRP), a non-profit, industry-run body that came about through the Product Stewardship Association (PSA), formed by the Consumer Electronics Suppliers' Association.
E-waste collection means our sad old TVs and thousands of other unwanted computers and printers go from being hazardous waste in landfills to useable recycled materials. Our tech rejects are set for an extreme makeover that in recycling is called ''de-manufacturing''.
TechCollect is one of three e-waste recycling services operating in Australia keeping dead tech from landfill graveyards; it has drop-off centres in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.
In October, the Knox transfer station began filling five-tonne shipping containers with old CRT televisions and monitors, which weigh an average 25 kilograms each. Hauled away by truck to a recycling sorting centre such as the Sims facility in Oakleigh South, the products are ripped apart for a new beginning or safe disposal.
Since the centre got up and running in mid-September, more than 1000 televisions and computer monitors have been collected in Knox, which isn't surprising considering Australians buy more than 30 million new TV and computer products each year, according to TechCollect.
That staggering consumption rate helps explains why the federal government is pushing for e-waste recovery through the PSA act, which aims to boost e-waste recycling rates from 10 per cent to 80 per cent by 2022.
Watching the tech autopsy in action is a fascinating and uplifting experience - 95 per cent of most devices are able to be salvaged (the remaining 5 per cent goes into landfill), with glass, plastic and metals then shipped off to specialist recycling plants for reuse.
Sims Australia general manager Rod Bonnette says the most valuable parts of electrical waste are the precious metals such as gold, silver and copper, which are found in cables, circuit boards, RAM and contacts.
Apart from the recovery of valuable materials, the process also aims to prevent toxic waste from being released into the environment. Consumer electronics include a mix of up to 60 elements, including toxic chemicals and metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium, which can leach into the soil and waterways when the equipment in which they are contained is left in the open weather.
Sims Recycling Solutions, a world leader in the field, is mindful of the financial and environmental impacts of e-waste recycling and is also concerned with the health and safety of employees handling hazardous materials.
There are also the company's trademark secrets to protect. The metals found in TVs and computer equipment are increasingly rare and expensive to dig up out of the earth, so efficient and effective e-waste management is becoming more competitive. Which means no mobile phones or cameras allowed at the plant, and visitors don full safety gear before entering the factory.
A walk-through reveals how e-waste is unloaded, weighed, categorised, sorted and dismantled, including a live demonstration of a CRT being completely stripped, which takes one man just three minutes.
With seven staff on duty, about 10 tonnes of tech waste can be processed each day. The plant houses huge batches of old TVs, computers, fax machines, credit-card readers, drills and keyboards, each with their own workstation for dissection.
Most e-recyclers do the job manually but Sims uses technology and custom personal protective equipment in its process to avoid accidents. Even the smallest part of the product - the battery - needs to be handled with extreme care.
Another common source of e-waste is mobile phones. For those who've upgraded their phone, which Australians do on average every 18 to 24 months, companies such as Mobile Muster will take your old one. It provides drop-boxes or accepts phones by mail.
An estimated 22 million old mobile phones are lying around in Australian homes and businesses. Bonnette, citing an international Sims Metal Management sustainability report, says its global recycling activities have produced energy savings in excess of 14.3 million megawatt hours, enough to power about 4.3 million average homes.
That amounts to a CO2 emissions reduction of 15.2 million tonnes for the year, which would offset the emissions of about 3.4 million people.
The trash-to-treasure tech movement is an exciting initiative, but for people in the developing world it can be life-changing.
Kelvin Doe, 15, a self-taught inventor from Sierre Leone, creates his own technology such as batteries and generators from parts scavenged from trash bins.
He recently showcased his skills at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Doe has built a radio transmitter and says his next project is to build a windmill to generate electricity for his village.
Imagine what innovation this young African could produce with just one batch of our e-trash.
Sydney Morning Herald