We’re a nation of mobile phone users. In 2015, we imported $675 million worth of phones – the highest value to date. But have you ever wondered what goes into that sleek slab of glass and metal?
As well as gold and silver, mobile phones contain copper, nickel, lead and lithium. There’s cobalt in the batteries, tantalum and gallium in the circuit boards and indium in the screen. Rare earth elements like neodymium are used in the speakers and vibration unit.
These materials aren’t confined to phones alone. They’re also found in cameras, computers, televisions and other electronic devices. The United Nations University estimates 320 tonnes of gold and more than 7500 tonnes of silver is used globally every year in the production of electronic gadgetry.
It may seem crazy to throw such resource-hungry products in the bin, but we do. According to the Ministry for the Environment, we dump between 72,000 and 85,500 tonnes of electronic waste or “e-waste” each year. It's estimated about a quarter of this waste consists of TVs, computers and computer equipment. Plans for a regulated recycling system have come to nothing.
Note: E-waste is any product that uses an electric current and enters the waste stream. As well as electronic gadgets such as mobile phones and TVs, it includes large household appliances, power tools, fluorescent lamps and medical devices such as dialysis equipment.
The tipping point
We produce about 19kg of e-waste per person every year, which is comparable to countries such as Australia, the US and Canada. However, SLR Consulting (an environmental consultancy firm) predicts that figure will reach 27kg per person by 2030.
As our demand for technology grows, we’ll place greater stress on the limited resources needed to produce it. We can ease the strain by recovering materials from discarded electronics. The precious metal deposits in e-waste are an estimated 40 to 50 times richer than ores mined from the ground.
As well as valuable materials, e-waste can contain hazardous substances. Old cathode ray tube TVs carry lead and arsenic whereas newer LCD TVs use mercury in backlights and switches. The hard plastic covers encasing TVs can contain brominated flame retardants. These substances are bioaccumulative toxins: they accumulate up the food chain rather than breaking down.
In old or abandoned tips, toxins can leech from e-waste into the soil and groundwater. In newer tips, leachate is contained by a liner. This reduces contamination in the short- to medium-term but, in the long run, the tip liner itself degrades and the leachate escapes.
Other countries are adopting a regulatory approach to tackle e-waste. They’ve introduced statutory product stewardship schemes, which means the cost of responsibly dealing with a product at the end of its life is shared among manufacturers, consumers, recyclers and so on.
Across the ditch, the government introduced the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme in 2011. Under the scheme, manufacturers and distributers of TVs and computers must belong to an industry-funded, but state-regulated, e-waste recovery programme. In turn, the programmes must recycle a percentage of all discarded TVs, computers and computer equipment. The recycling target for the 2015-16 financial year is 50 percent. It rises to 80 percent by 2026-27.
So far, the scheme has exceeded its targets. In 2013-14, scheme participants were expected to collect and recycle 43,400 tonnes of scrapped TVs and computers. Instead, they processed more than 52,700 tonnes. At points, the public appetite for e-waste recycling surpassed the budget. Some recyclers closed services to avoid collecting more e-waste than they were funded to process. As a result, industry-funded recycling targets were ratcheted up in mid-2015 to meet public demand.
But not here …
In 2007, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recommended increasing regulatory support for recovery and recycling of electronic goods. The following year, the Waste Minimisation Act was introduced. It gave government the power to enforce product stewardship schemes for “priority products”.
To get the regulatory ball rolling, the Ministry for the Environment identified seven product types as priorities. E-waste was one of them. But things changed after the 2008 general election. Rather than enforce product stewardship schemes, the new government tried voluntary measures.
Since then, 13 industry-led voluntary product stewardship schemes have been accredited under the Act. These recycle various wastes from school milk cartons to refrigerants to mobile phones (see “Hitting redial”). According to the ministry, accredited schemes divert 178,000 tonnes of waste from landfill each year – equivalent to about six percent of all waste going to official disposal facilities.
Beyond the accredited schemes, the ministry has funded other voluntary recycling projects, including eDay (which ran from 2006 until 2010) and the TV TakeBack programme (2012 to 2014). Both projects encouraged consumers to deposit unwanted electronic equipment at drop-off points.
While these projects received good public buy-in, they hit snags when it came to processing the waste. In 2010, the director of CRTNZ, eDay’s recycling contractor, was prosecuted for attempting to export hazardous waste without a valid permit. The director was convicted of four charges and fined a total of $13,590.
In 2014, RCN E-Waste, one of three recycling subcontractors for the TV TakeBack programme, was unable to process its share of old TVs. The company went into liquidation, having received $4.4 million in government funding. The company is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.
The possibility of a mandatory e-waste scheme re-emerged in 2014. The then Minister for the Environment Amy Adams announced “in my view, the time has come to consider appropriate mandatory approaches”. The ministry called for submissions regarding proposed regulated schemes for e-waste, refrigerants, tyres and agricultural chemicals and plastics.
E-waste was fingered because it posed a risk of harm, there was economic sense in recycling it and, to date, voluntary recycling measures hadn’t passed muster. What’s more, representatives from the computer, TV and recycling industries had previously stated an e-waste scheme would only work if it was mandatory.
Of the 216 respondents to the ministry’s proposals, 75 percent supported regulation of e-waste. Only one percent opposed it, including the Scrap Metal Recycling Association of New Zealand and the New Zealand Telecommunications Forum (see “Hitting Redial”). The remainder were either unsure or didn’t specify a preference.
All submissions from local government were in favour of regulatory action on e-waste. Several councils provided estimates of illegal dumping of electronic items. For instance, Wellington City Council estimated “illegal dumping of TV sets and monitors continues at the rate of approximately 15 per week within our city boundaries”.
In the same discussion document, the ministry flagged two possibilities for a mandatory scheme: a narrow focus on TVs, computer and computer equipment (similar to the Australian scheme); or a broader version incorporating other types of e-waste such as mobile devices and batteries. The ministry plumped for a narrow focus. But of those respondents who expressed a preference, most (105 vs 92) preferred a broader scheme.
Back to square one
On paper, e-waste seems like a prime candidate for a mandatory scheme. It contains both hazardous substances as well as valuable materials. Moreover, other countries are using mandatory schemes to divert large amounts of e-waste from landfill. So what’s the hold up?
In conjunction with the submission process, the ministry allocated $170,000 to SLR Consulting to investigate options for managing our e-waste. The company’s final report concluded the data we kept on e-waste wasn’t robust enough to prove there was a significant problem. It couldn’t recommend a mandatory recycling scheme.
Since then, the government has thrown a mandatory scheme in the too hard basket. Where Amy Adams once wrote “in my view, the time has come to consider appropriate mandatory approaches”, Environment Minister Nick Smith says “the government favours voluntary product stewardship” because it’s difficult to determine which electronic products should be subject to a regulatory scheme.
- Since 2008, the government has backed voluntary recycling schemes. This has provided consumers with recycling options for some types of e-waste, but nothing for others. We think a broad mandatory scheme is needed to deal with a waste issue that’s only going to grow.
- Why is it so difficult to determine the scope of a regulatory e-waste scheme? Other countries are successfully using mandatory schemes to stem the flow of e-waste.
By Luke Harrison