Going to e-waste: Australia’s recycling failures and the challenge of solar

Going to e-waste: Australia’s recycling failures and the challenge of solar

More than 100,000 tonnes of solar panel waste are forecast to enter Australia’s waste stream by 2035

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Last modified on Sat 21 Aug 2021 20.50 EDT

The first time Dr Pablo Dias set foot in an Australian recycling facility to see how the nation’s e-waste was processed he was struck by disappointment.

Until that moment the now 31-year-old had romanticised Australia. As a young engineering student in Brazil he had been working to develop methods to safely recycle old photovoltaic (PV) solar cells but when he tried to take it outside the lab, he found himself hamstrung.

“There was no advanced processing in Brazil,” Dias says. “It was only low-end processing, manual separation, shredding – the stuff you do with very little infrastructure or investment.

“Once I found that out, I started looking for a geographically similar country that had a more advanced e-waste set-up.”

His search eventually led him to Australia, which had operated a sophisticated recycling scheme called the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) since 2011 with the goal of stopping old cathode-ray tube (CRT) televisions, laptops and computer accessories going to landfill.

On paper the scheme was impressive but in application Dias found it amounted to a good logistical operation that was let down by a lack of follow-through.

“What I found slowly but surely is that Australia didn’t have any advanced processing either,” Dias says. “You’re doing all this work, you have all this legislation, you have all this stuff set up to achieve the same thing we have in Brazil without legislation, only because our [labour] market is cheaper.”

‘Set and forget’

To date the NTCRS has diverted 290,000 tonnes of e-waste material from landfill but a series of loopholes, a “set and forget” approach by government and “light-touch” regulation has allowed the system to suffer neglect.

With some estimates now forecasting that more than 100,000 tonnes of solar panel waste will enter the country’s waste stream by 2035, what Australia does with its old gadgets and electrical equipment represents a new challenge the industry says needs to be dealt with quickly.

Once collected by the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme, items broken down into constituent parts - circuit boards, plastic and glass - were until recently sent offshore.

Dias says meeting that challenge means first understanding what went wrong – a question he spent 18 months trying to answer when he set out in April 2017 to visit every recycler in the country to see their operations.

Thanks to his persistence he managed to visit half of those working in Australia – usually after signing a non-disclosure agreement that has since lapsed. The others generally refused outright.

What he found was an industry that was opaque by design. At the apex sat four organisations known as “coregulatory arrangements” that liaised with product manufacturers who fund the scheme and deal directly with government.

These organisations were charged with monitoring the work of 31 recyclers operating at the time, but these entities also sometimes doubled as recyclers themselves making for a confusing mess of overlapping obligations.

Crucially Australia had very little no “downstream capacity” to process these items after they had been dismantled. Once collected by the scheme, items broken down into constituent parts – circuit boards, plastic and glass – were until recently sent offshore.

With enough time this became a problem as, due to the design of the scheme, government regulators had no real direct oversight of the recyclers doing this work – a bug highlighted by a scathing Department of Environment and Energy review of the scheme in 2017.

“The frustrating thing is it could all be so much better,” Dias says. “[The NTCRS] system is a good system. It could be so much better with just a few extra-tweaks – almost effortlessly better. The hard work is all there.”

‘E-waste mountains’

The long-running issues of traceability, transparency and enforcement were colourfully illustrated in September 2017 when a group of investigators from the Basel Action Network (BAN) – a non-for-profit group that monitors compliance with the 1989 United Nations Basel Convention on the trade of hazardous wastes – attempted to learn where exactly Australia’s e-waste was going.

The group fitted 35 old CRT televisions, LED monitors and printers with GPS devices of a special make. Out of this sample the team quickly focused on the fate of three LCD screens dropped at Officeworks storefronts around the Brisbane metro area.

Hayley Palmer, BAN’s chief operating officer, was on the team that followed where they went afterwards. As the signals left the country, Palmer, her nine-month-old and a colleague tracked the monitors to a warehouse in Hong Kong and then on to an illegal dump-yard in a rural part of Thailand where they talked their way inside.

“I remember being overwhelmed by the smell of burnt electronics,” Palmer said. “The residue smells were still there despite how there was no evidence of anything happening at that moment.”

While the site was not in operation during their visit, Palmer says it was indicative of other operations across south-east Asia where people desperate enough to work in unsafe conditions use toxic chemical processes to wash circuit boards for their precious metals and then burn what’s left.

A worker distributes electronic waste at a government managed recycling centre at the township of Guiyu in China's southern Guangdong province.

Palmer says that since her investigation the focal point for the illegal e-waste trade has shifted from China after a government crackdown when photos of the “e-waste mountains” in Guiyi went global in 2016, scatter the industry’s operators across the region.

Since neighbouring countries like Thailand and Vietnam have followed suit, Pakistan has recently emerged as the final destination for the world’s e-waste.

The road to change

There have also been consequences for the lack of oversight closer to home.

In 2020 a stockpile of used lithium batteries caught fire at a recycling facility managed by e-waste recycling facility MRI in Campbellfield, Victoria. The resulting blaze billowed toxic smoke and contaminated a nearby creek in the five hours it took 75 firefighters to bring it under control.

Since then environment regulators in Victoria have laid a total of 36 new charges against the company and its directors, while authorities in New South Wales announced an investigation after they found nearly 200 tonnes of used batteries sitting in an MRI warehouse at Warwick Farm in Sydney’s west. MRI is understood to be defending the charges.

The company – which was once a major player in the industry but has since had its operating licence cancelled – was also dumped by Officeworks in 2019 in the wake of the BAN investigation. The retailer now works with the Australian New Zealand Recycling Platform (ANZRP).

When contacted by the Guardian, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment said it takes compliance with the NTCRS “very seriously” and has introduced several new measures to strengthen the scheme.

“The department has begun a new program of work that is focussed entirely on solutions for e-stewardship [and] e-waste,” they said. “The recent cancelation of MRI PSO Pty Ltd is an example of the department’s strong response to serious non-compliance.”

ANZRP chief Warren Overton says renewed government interest in the industry over is positive but some feel things aren’t changing fast enough.

In the last 18 months the federal government has concluded a review of the NTCRS, established the $190m Recycling Modernisation Fund (RMF) and introduced a ban on the export of unprocessed plastic waste that came into effect on 1 July.

The ban means that while the circuit boards that contain precious metals can be exported, the plastic and glass can’t without further processing.

“Recyclers are stockpiling [the plastic] at the moment,” Overton says. “They’re trying to figure out, is the ban really going to have an impact on their businesses? It is, because there’s a decided lack of [domestic] capacity to take that plastic and process it.”

One area where Overton would like the government to move on quicker is expanding the scheme to include PV solar and other items not currently included like computer modems.

“The solar industry has been tracking this for 20 years, so we know when these panels are going to come off the roof or out of solar farms,” Overton says. “Federal and state governments know it’s an issue. They’ve got the numbers, they know that in the next two-to-three years we’re going to be hit by a deluge of end-of-life solar panels.”

What is a problem to some also represents a significant commercial for the 45 plastic recycling projects currently being planned across the country that includes companies like the Singaporean-based eco-tech company Clean Earth Technologies.

The organisation’s chief commercialisation officer, Mark Fowler, says they are looking to build a recycling plant to process printed circuit boards in Adelaide by the end of the year.

“We’re looking to try and take a position with a clean technology and a clean process, to recover those materials,” Fowler said. “We can do this in a way that ensures nothing goes to landfill.”

The proposal relies on a new process invented by Flinders University chemist Justin Chalker that allows for precious metals to be extracted from circuit-boards without hazardous chemicals and for the residual plastic waste plastic to be combined with a “novel” polymer to create other products.

The goal, Fowler says, is to create a truly circular economy capable of turning abandoned iPhones into gold, dead laptop motherboards into kitchen counter tops and solar panels into building blocks.

“Getting this right is important,” Fowler says. “If we just let it go to landfill it’s a whole lot of human effort wasted. The amount of things you could create is whatever you could think up. There’s no limit.”

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