Our digital landfill

Although digital television broadcasts commenced ten years ago, only now is there some urgency about converting Australians to the technology. If the government’s timetable for switch-off is met, analog tellies will go blank by 2014, and that means around 14 million people need to tool up for digital over the next four years.

The government’s $38 million ‘Are You Ready’ advertising campaign is letting people know that change is coming by promoting a labelling program that helps educate around various DTV products. Running in tandem in this – and there’s no coincidence here – is the multi-year, multi-million dollar Freeview promotion. The new brand name for the collection of digital channels provided by the nation’s television networks, Freeview is spruiking the extra programming available from digital and adding Freeview stickers to select HD products to further define the choice for buyers of digital gear.

So digital TV is finally getting the kick-along it needs, but as more and more households make the switch there are going to be a lot of homeless CRT tellies on the nature strips of Australia. A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald stated that we’ve already dumped 17 million tellies in landfill and that, annually, two million will continue to be put out to pasture.

That’s just the tip of the tech-junk iceberg too. According to a report from the Total Environment Centre, which was prepared using government data, we’ve buried around 56 million mobile phones and 37 million computers too. And all this stuff does more than just take up space; it’s toxic legacy includes mercury, lead, arsenic, bromide, beryllium and cadmium.

Existing schemes for properly disposing of or recycling e-waste are poorly coordinated and concentrated mostly in metropolitan areas, so much so that Australia recycles only 4 percent of its own throw-way tech. The rest is sent offshore to countries better setup to process the stuff, but recent ship seizures show that some operators are illegally exporting Australian e-waste and its chemical nasties to developing countries such as China. Here, it’s often children who are employed to pick through hills of discarded, hazardous technology to retrieve the barest amounts of valuable metals.

If all this makes you feel sick, the proposed $35 levy to cover the cost of a national recycling scheme will be welcome news. Put forward at a meeting of Australia’s state environment ministers in May, the levy would be built into a TV’s retail price by its manufacturer and guarantee that the television would be taken away for environmentally responsible disposal when you’ve finished with it. Details of the scheme will be worked out in the next six months, with November earmarked as a commencement date.

In general, then, this is good news, but unlike other countries where similar schemes are mandatory, the Australian version is likely to be voluntary. While we all value the concept of not having to participate in something if we choose not to, an opt-in program is inconsistent with the government’s record in this area. It is forcing us to buy digital TVs, after all, so why not be equally forceful in making us – and industry – properly dispose of our analog ones?

And then there’s the ‘35’ figure. The scheme will undoubtedly cost more (everything costs more, right?), and this will get some consumers and consumer groups all worked up. But unlike the plastic supermarket bags that remind you weekly of your lack of environmental commitment  (cos you always leave the green bags in the car boot) the TV upon which you pay a ‘green’ levy can offer some nightly reassurance.

Coupled with the energy star rating and MEPS (Mandatory Energy Performance Standard) systems that will become compulsory in September, the big TV may well shake the 4WD stigma it’s collected of late. When it does we’ll be able to love our large-screen TVs, and feel good about them too.