Globalisation, electronics waste disposal and the electronics servicing industry

Published in the nz.soc.green newsgroup, 24 April, 2002

I am an electronics service technician who has worked in the industry
for 20 years. I have seen a number of changes over that time. I am
also a concerned environmentalist.

As a technician my job is made more difficult for reasons I will
outline. The cost of electronics consumer items which I service has
reduced over the years as a result of removal of tariffs, mass
production and globalised trade especially with countries which have
lower labour rates. These same countries have poor environmental and
social protection policies. Since the consumer products are cheap to
buy they are less likely to repaired when they fail. Manufacturers are
becoming more reluctant to supply replacement spare parts for the
servicing industry. If parts are available they tend to be quite
expensive. Quite often this makes the goods on economic to repair.
Manufacturers are also closing some of their authorised service centres
for the products. This makes it more difficult for the customers to
have the goods repaired. Recently I discovered that at least one New
Zealand division of a major electronics company has shifted its spare
parts supply warehouse to Australia. As an aside the parts currently in
the warehouse were discarded since it was uneconomic to ship them to
Australia. I have a suspicion that this may cause more difficulties for
the electronic servicing trade. I am sure it would take the service out
of the electronics service industry.

As far as I can tell there is no lobby group for electrical and
electronics servicing trade.

My view is that the manufacturers of a electrical equipment would prefer
to supply a replacement item rather than have a faulty item repaired.
They do this because it makes sound economic sense. There is more money
to be made in supplying a $200 appliance than in supplying a $10
replacement spare part. There is of course higher environmental costs
in discarding the appliance rather than having a repaired. Some
appliances are built rather shoddily. They have their own in-built
obsolescence. They are built to a price and the price is low. And of
course you get what you play for. As a technician I quite often see a
number of manufacturing techniques that do actually shorten the lifetime
of appliance.

Electrical, electronic and computer equipment is an ideal candidate for
“Extended Producer Responsibility”. This is where the manufacturer is
responsible for the correct recycling of product at the end of its
lifetime. Evidence from other countries suggests that manufacturers
will only take serious responsibility for recycling of the products if
they are forced to do so by government legislation. Manufacturers are
foisting the disposal of the products onto the end-user. This is an
ideal arrangement for them since there is no costs to them. The
end-user has difficulty in finding out how to dispose of this
equipment. Local government agencies are avoiding the issue. With the
current regime the environment, the rate player and the taxpayer are for
disposal. The EU is becoming serious about disposal of electrical
goods. The US, who tend to lack somewhat on enacting environmental
legislation especially if it in impinges on economic growth, are also
addressing the issue of disposal of electrical goods. However just as
some countries are used as a cheap labour source by the so-called first
world countries they are also used as a dumping ground for discarded
equipment. The cause of the poor environmental standards their country
is being polluted as a result of our affluence and weak environmental
laws. I have anecdotal evidence of faulty electronics equipment and
scrap being sent to countries such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Electrical, electronic and computer equipment contains all manner of
difficult to recycle substances. Some of the materials are hazardous.
Discarded equipment should be treated as hazardous goods. It is high
time to control this increasingly significant portion of the waste
stream.