Australia is at risk of falling behind OECD computer recycling standards after federal environment minister Peter Garrett refused to mandate a national e-waste policy.
Industry experts say the government has ignored pleas for a fee to be imposed on the import or sale of IT equipment — similar to mandatory recycling laws in Japan, the United States and the European Union — for more than a decade.
Countries with e-waste recycling legislation salvage more than 80 percent of IT equipment destined for landfill, while Australia recycles less than 4 percent. Australians dumped a record 313,000 tonnes of e-waste in 2005.
Garrett said the government is not considering a tax on e-waste.
“I'm not talking about a tax at this time at all, what I'm talking about is us working with the states to create a national e-waste policy” Garrett said at the opening of Australia's first automated e-waste recycling plant.
“I'm not ruling anything in or out, I'm certainly not talking about a tax.
“There are gaps in the system and we have inherited a policy gap. There are arguments in favour of [industry responsibility for e-waste] and the Commonwealth will take up the thinking on a national policy issue.”
Garrett said the government will wait for the competition of a regulatory statement on recycling for televisions and computers due next year before committing to a policy arrangement.
Recycling giant Sims Group general manager Peter Netchaef said an effective e-waste recycling strategy would start at about $3 per desktop.
“Everywhere else in the OECD has recycling laws but that doesn't happen in Australia. We have been lobbying the government for a long time — it has not gone very well, but we may get it within the next 12 months,” Netchaef said.
“When you buy IT equipment in Europe, you pay a small fee which is held in a fund, and [customers] can take it back to a recycling utility at no charge.”
Netchaef said the government should impose the recycling fee at customs, unlike the point of sale tax used elsewhere, because Australia imports its computer equipment.
The government has left e-waste recycling to the private sector, lead by companies including Dell, Hewlett-Packard and the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), despite pleas for government intervention.
Some pundits argue for a co-regulated e-waste recycling scheme that incorporates industry and government regulation, where a regulatory safety net would eliminate competitive advantage gained by organisations that do not participate in recycling. An existing example of co-regulation is the support of the National Packaging Covenant by the Used Packaging Materials National Environmental Protection Measure.
Experts say Australia's annual 140,000 tonnes of e-waste will spike even higher as analogue equipment is dumped during the transition to digital broadcasting.
The hazardous materials contained in computers, including lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, beryllium and brominated flame retardants, pose a significant environmental threat according to the University of Technology, Sydney Programmers' Society.
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