Electronic waste

The Waste Minimisation Act 2008 gives the government new powers to introduce “product stewardship schemes”. These schemes can be used to make manufacturers and retailers take more responsibility for the goods they sell.

In 2008, a draft discussion document flagged over 20 products as potential priorities for stewardship schemes (see 'What's on the table', below). But current plans indicate we’re unlikely to see a rash of schemes anytime soon.

What is product stewardship?

Product stewardship means that goods should be designed and manufactured to minimise their environmental impacts, including the impacts from their disposal. Overseas, product stewardship schemes are increasingly common and have been developed for a wide range of consumer goods from TVs to tyres.

The Waste Minimisation Act, originally drafted by former Green MP Mike Ward, aims to put us in step with overseas trends. Under the Act, stewardship schemes can be developed to prohibit the sale of a product, control or prohibit the use of certain materials, or require manufacturers and retailers to take back end-of-life goods for recycling. 

What's on the table?

Prior to the 2008 election, the Ministry for the Environment drafted a discussion paper listing over 20 products and wastes for which stewardship schemes could be developed. Of these, seven were fingered as priorities for action. Electronic waste, a rapidly growing waste stream, was one of them. Other priorities were food waste, green waste (such as garden waste), tyres, treated timber, agricultural chemicals, and construction and demolition waste.

But things changed post-election. A revised discussion document released by the ministry in March 2009 listed just three products for which stewardship schemes “may” be developed. These are agricultural chemicals, used oil and refrigerant gases. The revised document says voluntary schemes may be set up for other wastes – but this will largely depend on whether businesses are willing to take part.

Current proposals are disappointing. If consumers are going to have effective options for reducing waste, a much more comprehensive approach to product stewardship is needed. The OECD’s 2007 report on New Zealand’s environmental performance also signals the need for more action. Among its recommendations, the report calls on the government to increase regulatory support for recovery or recycling of “priority wastes” such as post-consumer electronic goods.

The Australian government is proposing a mandatory stewardship scheme for electronic goods. These goods create a particularly nasty waste problem because of the toxic substances used in many appliances. Details of the Australian scheme, which will focus on computers and TVs, are expected to be finalised by November 2009. We’d like to see a similar scheme here. 

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