Volunteers power program to divert eWaste

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LESS than three years ago, a Brisbane western suburbs couple had a plan to help out a close family member.

That plan eventuated in the birth of eWaste Connection, a program established at Kenmore by Chris and Monique Lowndes that diverts broken or unwanted electronics that would usually end up as landfill.

The idea for their e-waste recycling venture grew from a need within their family: their adult son, Joshua Lowndes, is intellectually impaired.

“We noticed that, when Joshua got to Grade 11 and 12, we really needed to think about post-school options for him,” Joshua’s dad, Chris, said.

Initially his parents started taking him to a community run centre in Kingston, a place known as Substation 33.

That group offers disadvantaged and special needs children and young adults the chance to work with discarded electronic goods, pulling them apart and breaking them down to smaller components, some of which can then be used as spare parts.

“(Joshua) just became addicted and he started wanting to undo everything in the house,” Monique recalled.

This inspired the couple to begin their own operation 40km to the north-west of Substation 33, providing not only post-school opportunities for Joshua but for other local children and young adults like him.

Their program, which aims to recycle electronic waste and divert it from landfill, has proven a success.

How much e-waste do Australians produce?
* Australians are among the highest users of technology and e-waste is one of the fastest growing types of waste
* 17 million televisions and 37 million computers have been sent to landfill up to 2008
* 99 per cent of Australian households have at least one television set, while 55 per cent have a second set
* Of the 15.7 million computers that reached their ‘end of life’ in Australia in 2007-08, only 1.5 million were recycled – that’s less than 10 per cent
* The cumulative volume of televisions and computers reaching the end of their useful life is expected to reach 181,000 tonnes, or 44 million units, by 2027-28
* Australians buy more than 4 million computers and 3 million televisions annually
* Older televisions that contain Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT) have more than 2kg of lead and account for the largest source of lead in the waste stream
* Flat screen televisions contain less lead but more mercury
* If 75 per cent of the 1.5 million televisions discarded annually were recycled there would be savings of 23,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalents, 520 megalitres of water, 400,000 gigajoules of energy and 160,000 cubic metres of landfill space.
Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics

By creating a supportive and safe environment, eWaste Connection has also been building skills, social interaction and relationships while assisting people with a disability to participate in worthwhile experiences.

Their program – a registered National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) service provider – is open to anyone of any age, something that has created a diverse, supportive community.

“We offer the service to both young adults and kids at school,” Chris explained. “A number of schools send their children and students to different sessions during the week.”

He said individuals accessing other support services in the area also participated in the program.

Volunteers concentrate on deconstructing disused electronic goods at eWaste Connection.

Volunteers concentrate on deconstructing disused electronic goods at eWaste Connection.

 

Monique said that, although eWaste Connection was about recycling, it was also about the people involved.

“They gain a whole lot of self-esteem and self-confidence just by having someone who is prepared to sit and actually talk to them,” Monique explained.

“So, we are as much about that as about keeping this (waste) out of landfill.

“It’s is a wonderful group and I love the people here, everyone is so lovely and helpful.”
Volunteer Jordan Dale

Indeed, its volunteers seem to value their time with the program.

Emma White has been coming to eWaste Connection for almost two years.

“I like to meet new friends and I enjoy working here,” Emma shared.

Jordan Dale, on the other hand, is a newcomer to the program.

“It’s is a wonderful group and I love the people here,” Jordan said, “everyone is so lovely and helpful.”

Volunteers Peter Paech and Roger Sanderson enjoy their time at Kenmore’s eWaste Connection.

by Celina Rigby
Volunteers Peter Paech and Roger Sanderson enjoy their time at Kenmore’s eWaste Connection.

 

Another volunteer, Roger Sanderson, said he enjoyed “the companionship and playing with all the bits and pieces that come in and trying to fix them”.

Peter Paech, also a volunteer, said he liked the program’s end result, “keeping waste out of landfill and finding really cool electronic things that, maybe, we can reuse again”.

“I like coming here all the time, it’s really great.”

“Around 95 per cent of what comes in our door gets recycled … (we are) tracking towards 40,000kg of processed electrical waste
(over the past) 12 months.”
eWaste Connection founder Monique Lowndes

Since eWaste Connection opened, it has grown in popularity within the area, receiving unwanted electronic goods from other companies and collecting other items from local kerbside clean-ups.

It wasn’t long before their presence was recognised and their recycling service was being well-patronised.

“Once people understood that we were here, we weren’t able to stop the supplies,” Chris said. “There’s always people dropping things off, so we’re never short.”

While the community gets involved by donating and donating their e-waste to be recycled, the program also has volunteers who contribute by breaking down heavier machinery into components and passing them on to be recycled.

“We take anything that can be plugged in or battery operated,” Chris said.

“Normally, we’ll assess it. If it’s in fairly good shape, we might put it in the storage workshop for some of our technical guys who come in through the week to fix up and, if it can be fixed, we either sell it or donate it on.”

Anything that can’t be fixed ends up going to participants to work on, he added.

Volunteers working at eWaste Connection in Kenmore in Brisbane's west

by Celina Rigby
Volunteers break down components of donated electronic goods at eWaste Connection.

 

Monique is proud of the impact the program is having.

“Around 95 per cent of what comes in our door gets recycled,” she explained, adding they were “tracking towards 40,000kg of processed electrical waste (over the past) 12 months.”

“You go to a gold mine and take a tonne of ore from the ground, there will be much more gold in a tonne of old phones than there is in a tonne of ore.”
Monique Lowndes

Thanks to eWaste Connection’s efforts, more Kenmore residents are realising that recycling broken or unwanted electronic materials is a better alternative to sending them to landfill.

The Lowndes’ program has also partnered with Substation 33, collecting that group’s waste and sorting it into component types: plastic, steel, cables and so on.

Monique explained they then on-sell it, in combination with their own processed waste, to larger recycling or manufacturing companies.

“Everyone gets engaged in it and it’s just really good to see it not going into the ground,” she said.

“Now that I’m into it and (have) looked at the stuff we process, imagine if all that went just into landfill – and this is just local.”

Word spread quickly that eWaste Connection was taking old, broken and unwanted electronic items, including used mobile and landline phones.

by Celina Rigby
Word spread quickly that eWaste Connection was taking old, broken and unwanted electronic items, including used mobile and landline phones.

 

Monique and Chris are calling on industry to do more to recycle electronic waste.

“You go to a gold mine and take a tonne of ore from the ground, there will be much more gold in a tonne of old phones than there is in a tonne of ore,” she pointed out.

“So, industry should put more focus on reusing the gold that we already have removed from the ground rather than continuing to damage the environment by more mining.”

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Where to find eWaste Connection

99 Brookfield Road, Kenmore
(enter via Branton Street, the building is adjacent to the Men’s Shed).

Aerial map of eWaste Connection site

 

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Words: Celina Rigby
Images: Celina Rigby / The Argus
Video: Celina Rigby / The Argus

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Want to read more?
The original version of this story is one of 30 in a special online Climate Change edition of The Argus that was compiled by Queensland College of Art students from a final-year course called Transmedia Storytelling.