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‘E-waste’ gadgets aren’t garbage

The challenge: Understanding beliefs around the disposal of e-waste

Partner: Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning

Year: 2017

Unwanted electronic and electrical items such as phones and laptops are called e-waste and, instead of being recycled, they’re often sent to landfill where they slowly break down and leach hazardous materials into the surrounding soils.The Victorian Government is developing a new waste management policy for Victoria to reduce (and eventually stop) e-waste going to landfill.

The policy will soon come into effect, supported by a communications and education campaign.

What did we do?

To provide insights and direction for both the campaign and broader policy, BehaviourWorks was engaged to conduct behavioural research on key target audiences.

The largest unregulated groups disposing of e-waste are small to medium enterprises and householders.

These are the targets for behaviour change; the aim being to encourage these groups to take their e-waste to a transfer station for recycling.

BWA developed a state-wide survey to identify what control beliefs these groups held around recycling, past behaviours, likely timing of e-waste disposal, preferred sources of information and what their intentions might be with regard to future e-waste recycling behaviours.

What did we find?

The key research findings suggest lack of knowledge is a real hurdle to changing recycling practices.

Many of us don’t know what the term e-waste means, what can actually be done with it, or even where our local transfer stations are. 

When it comes to disposal, we seem to give old electronics away, store them somewhere or put them out in the hard rubbish.

Anything with data, like computers, we tend to keep and store out of privacy concerns. And whichever method we use, we tend to stick to it.

Predicting which groups are more likely to do the right thing comes down to a few (not surprising) factors. You are more likely to take e-waste to transfer stations if:

  • you think it’s a good idea
  • you can do it easily
  • you think others would do it
  • you believe it will actually be recycled
  • your workplace does it as a regular thing, and;
  • you know where to take it.

 

Overall, people want to do the right thing, even if they currently don’t bother, or don’t know how. 

  • Text Hover

There’s no seasonal time for e-waste to be disposed of, as devices become unwanted at different times. Most people go online to find out about disposal, with council websites mentioned as a common source of information.

Insights

The research suggests that, if ‘e-waste’ is a term that individual and groups don’t understand, then governments should consider using different, more self-explanatory terms.

The location of transfer station locations, and what they can take, should also be explained. The positive environmental and social outcomes of doing the right thing should also be emphasised (i.e. less landfill and pollution) as Victorian households and businesses need to able to trust that these items will be recycled. 

Council websites should also clearly lay-out and publish e-waste information. It may be that electronics retailers could also be brought on board to provide a disposal service; not so much a trade-in but a trusted handover. 

Short-term, any communication should build basic knowledge about recycling and sensitise Victorians to the idea that their old gadgets aren’t garbage.

At the same time, systems need to be in place to make sure these recycling behaviours are easy to carry out – all it takes is one failed attempt and many people won’t try again.

Further discussion

Options such as e-waste collection, trusted data destruction services and drop-off points at retailer outlets might turn things around. The research shows that a consistent approach is needed across Victoria to deter undesirable behaviours like putting e-waste in household bins or the hard rubbish. 

Other potential interventions, like fines and spot checks, could be also considered. 

E-waste might be seen by many as a hard problem, but it’s not rubbish. With the right approaches, plus time, we can stop making it someone else’s issue and get into the norm of recycling our e-waste. 

Update

Further research on this topic was published in 2018. The findings will be published soon.