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A positive case of self regulation in Australia

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Saindhav Tamhane, Manager, Process Engineering, Centre for Innovation at Government of South Australia, looks at how Australian manufacturers deal with regulations regarding waste from the manufacture of electronics and electronic equipment goods.     
The focus on manufactured waste originated in Europe with two separate pieces of legislation.
WEEE (waste electrical electronic equipment) legislation looked at all the wastes from the IT boom as well as telecommunications and all forms of electrical equipment from washers and fridges to cars.
ROHS (Restrictions on hazardous substances) legislation pushed the reduction of the use of heavy metals (and lead in particular) that are harmful to both humans and the environment.
What is interesting about the European Union (EU) legislation is that it is producer compliant, meaning that no EU member country will import any goods that fall outside their guidelines.

In Australia, although there has been no great rush to introduce any legislation regarding electronic waste nor to support manufacturers to reach compliance, remarkably it is one of the few areas where market forces have actually worked in bringing about change, driven by the huge EU market regulations. Other jurisdictions are coming on board with their own legislation, most notably Japan, South Korea, certain states in the USA and China.


It seems that the EU, as the founder of this foresight into future waste, has implemented a global recognition of the need to deal with electronic waste, backed up by a huge market force – the EU itself.
The legislation has already seen the replacement of lead solder as a way of producing electrical connections, so much so that it is now a commercial imperative to use lead-free connections, despite the absence of any state or federal legislation in Australia. It is simply not cost effective for manufacturers in a small market like Australia to produce both compliant (for export to the EU and other compliant markets) and noncompliant (for local markets) versions of the same equipment.

Environmentally speaking, Australia is benefitting from our manufacturers’ WEEE and ROHS voluntary compliance since waste management in this area has been much improved.
However, as the EU has found compliance is not without cost. For example, the shared cost in waste management is evident in the reply paid envelopes that are being distributed with printer cartridges at the time of purchase, ensuring that used cartridges are directed to recycling centres. This diversion away from landfill is becoming increasingly valued, with a number of councils and commercial organisations becoming involved in the reduction of electronic waste.

The options for this waste disposal depend on education and mechanisms to reward the collection and recycling of electronic waste.
Government encouragement of such strategies is an avenue for positive input that does not require legislation. The EU may well lead but Australia is certainly following in the right direction.

Text: V.B. February 2009  Image: Paul McQueen

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