Taking the “waste” out of e-waste

By: Alistair McCaskill

In 1989 Will Lemesurier was a chartered accountant helping a company through tough economic times. Little did he realise that a couple of decades latter he would, as Managing Director and major shareholder in the company, oversee the refurbishment of 50,000 computers each year. On top of that, the business processes 5,000 tonnes of e-waste, a figure that’s set to rise substantially.

Second life

Partly due to Moore’s Law, corporate Australia turns over computers about every three years. Most of them still work perfectly well, and through MRI they go on to provide valuable technology to schools in Thailand and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, only a small proportion of computers are suitable for refurbishment. Along with old TVs, mobile phones and a variety of batteries most of them end up in landfill. Depending on the type of product, Australia only recycles between 5 and 15% of its e-waste, much of which goes through MRI’s facilities.

Legislation to the rescue

Fortunately, in June 2011 the Australian parliament passed legislation that seeks to increase the rate of e-waste recycling to at least 80% by 2020. “It’s good legislation,” says Will, “It’s taken 15 years of lobbying to get it, but with the manufacturers on board it will work.”

It should also boost MRI’s revenue growth, already running at a healthy 30% pa. Revenue comes from resale of computers, fees for the recycling services and from the sale of recovered materials, such as copper. Increased demand for e-waste recycling may bring more competitors into the market, but Will notes that there are significant barriers of entry into the recycling industry. “EPA licenses are required, along with some technology. We can double or triple our throughput just by adding more shifts, so our expansion costs are low. Beyond that, further capital investment would be required.”

On the downside, the high Australian dollar has had an impact on MRI’s bottom line lately, as commodities are priced in US dollars.

Keeping it local

Most of the recycled material is processed locally – glass from CRT monitors is converted to glass fibre for insulation, mixed plastic is turned into posts and pallets, and most metals are traded in Australia. One exception to local processing is circuit boards, for which there is no local processor. These are shipped to an ISO14001 accredited facility in Korea where gold and silver are recovered. MRI maintains three tier tracking of waste to ensure it is properly handled not just by their customers, but also their customer’s customers.

Green streak

Will admits to having a green streak. “We’re proud of our contribution to environmental protection,” he says. “Green issues are part of our business philosophy.” It is a feeling shared by some senior members of staff for whom environmental issues are a motive.

As well as computers and TVs, MRI is Australia’s largest recycler of non-lead acid batteries. Lithium, which only makes up about 4% of the weight of lithium ion batteries isn’t yet on the list of recovered materials, but MRI is looking at this with the help of CSIRO. Most of the weight in batteries is cobalt and steel. MRI has an arrangement with Toyota Australia to recycle batteries from hybrid vehicles, but with their long life very few are turning up in the recycling stream.