Toxic Australian e-waste dumped on China
ILLEGAL shipments of electronic waste from Australian homes — old computers, televisions and mobile phones — have been seized from cargo vessels, part of a little-known smuggling trade that fuels child labour and toxic pollution in China.
Since the start of last year, 12 ships carrying “e-waste” have been intercepted leaving Australia for Asian ports without hazardous materials permits, including four so far this year, Australian Customs and the Department of Environment confirmed yesterday. These seizures were the tip of the iceberg, recycling industry sources told the Herald.
Only about 4 per cent of the nation’s e-waste is recycled, the Environment Department says. Most of the rest goes into landfill, and an unknown proportion is shipped overseas illegally.
The national policy on controlling e-waste, and other recycling measures, will be reviewed at a meeting of state and federal environment ministers in Hobart today.
Industry and environment groups believe the ministers have a chance to kill off e-waste smuggling by adopting a national levy on electronic goods that would pay for safe collection and recycling in Australia. Much e-waste exported from the developed world ends up in China, particularly in the southern city of Guiyu, which is sometimes referred to as the world’s most polluted town. Until now, Australia was not thought to be a contributor to that trade.
A United Nations report released in December recorded potentially deadly levels of mercury and other toxins in Guiyu’s water and soil, together with highly dangerous work practices.
Observers saw thousands of peasant labourers, including children, chipping apart televisions, computers, DVD players and phones with chisels to get at the valuable minerals inside. Some appliances were soaked in acid baths to burn away worthless plastic shells and extract the traces of gold and platinum used in electronic circuitry.
“We have been approached many times by traders wanting to buy our material for illegal shipping overseas, and we always pass this information on to the Environment Department,” said Kumar Radhakrishnan, the senior vice-president in the Asia-Pacific for the recycling company Sims Group. “We suspect there is a lot more of it going on and we would like to see more enforcement.”
The Environment Department said it had co-operated with the Australian Customs Service to intercept ships in both Australian and foreign ports. Materials seized had been safely processed in Australia but no prosecutions for illegal shipping of e-waste had been carried out yet.
About 37 million computers have been buried in landfill around Australia, along with 17 million TVs and 56 million mobile phones, according to a report prepared last year by the Total Environment Centre, using government data.
Toxic materials inside some common electronic goods in Australia include mercury, lead, arsenic, bromide, beryllium and cadmium, although these are usually in tiny amounts.
Australia has the capacity to recycle much more e-waste than the current 4 per cent, though in many cases it remains more profitable to ship it overseas.
A Sims e-waste recycling plant in Villawood, opened in November by the Minister for the Environment, Peter Garrett, was still operating at only a third of its capacity of 20,000 tonnes a year, Mr Radhakrishnan said.