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Are you an e-waste litterbug?

Received a new iPhone for Christmas? Thinking of upgrading your laptop? These often unnecessary device upgrades are becoming more and more common as we advance through the digital age. Unfortunately, little thought goes into what happens to the old gizmos and gadgets we dispose of each year. It’s a little-known fact that New Zealand disposes of over 70 tonnes of electronic waste per year. If we expect to keep our country clean and green for generations to come, this needs to change.

Fortunately, there are organisations that offer e-waste recycling schemes for New Zealand that focus on resolving this issue, and there are things we gadget-lovers can do to make a difference. Environmental Choice New Zealand’s General Manager Francesca Lipscombe sheds more light on the issue.

What actually is e-waste, and why is it a problem?

E-waste is electronic equipment (anything powered by electricity or a battery) that enters the waste stream.

The scale of the issue is a problem – we’re using and disposing of more electronic equipment than ever before. A Ministry for the Environment (MfE) publication in 2009 described e-waste as the fastest growing type of municipal waste in the world. A more recent MfE discussion document noted that New Zealand disposes of some 72,000–85,500 tonnes of e-waste per year.

This is of concern because E-waste contains higher levels of heavy metals and other hazardous substances than other municipal waste. Without proper recycling this toxic waste ends up in the landfill. There is also an important opportunity to recover valuable resources from e-waste for reuse.

The way we are disposing of our electronics now, what will the effects be in the near future?

By sending e-waste to the landfill toxic substances can leach into soil, pollute waterways, upset ecosystems and have the potential to affect our health. For example, lead causes damage to the nervous system and blood. Barium can damage organs such as the heart, liver and spleen. Beryllium and arsenic are carcinogens.

How do other countries control e-waste disposal?

E-waste is an international problem and a priority in many parts of the world. While Canada and most European countries lead the way with e-waste recycling, the export of e-waste to developing nations, which their lack of effective environmental regulations and controls, has resulted in significant adverse effects on people and the environment.

Australia has legislation in place around e-waste but still has problems with acceptable standards of recycling.

Legislation is a start but manufacturers of electronic products have a responsibility that goes beyond the sale to the end of life of a product.

What are some of the toxic materials in e-waste that damage the environment?

The MfE suggests the following twenty substances could be present in our e-waste: antimony, arsenic, asbestos, barium oxide, beryllium, cadmium, chlorofluorocarbons and hydro-chlorofluorocarbons, chlorine or brominated flame retardants, cobalt, copper, lead, lithium, mercury, nickel, poly-chlorinated biphenyls, selenium, silver, tin and zinc.

How should we be responsibly disposing of our e-waste?

Consumers can be more responsible in disposing of e-waste firstly by purchasing products from electronics brands that offer local, reputable take-back and recycling services. They can also follow through with that by taking electronic products to collection points for disposal.

Do your research. There are some manufacturers who have a very responsible attitude to the complete life cycle of their products. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers of electronic products have made this commitment to the environment.

What is the most common type of e-waste we see in New Zealand?

Over 600,000 desktop computers and laptops were sold in New Zealand in 2007 but e-waste is much larger than just computers and TVs. Think mobile phones, game consoles, tablets etc. For example, in 2011 over 300,000 desktop printers were imported into New Zealand.

How can we find out more about e-waste and how it’s damaging our country?

This is the tricky question as there is a lot of ‘greenwash’ in the market place. I try to encourage businesses and consumers to ask questions when faced with environmental or sustainability claims. Make businesses substantiate their claims.

Environmental Choice also offers a website where you can find information about companies who have taken proactive steps to review their supply chain and produce environmentally preferable products.

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