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Our embarrassing e-waste habits

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 07 July 2020, 10:50 am
Our embarrassing e-waste habits

The world is discarding more electronic waste than ever before, according to the United Nations, with a 17 per cent increase in e-waste produced in the last five years.

A record amount of 53.6 million tonnes (Mt) of e-waste was produced globally in 2019. The United Nations' Global E-waste Monitor 2020 considers e-waste to be any electronic device with a battery or plug that has been thrown out.

While Asia is the biggest producer of e-waste, accounting for 25Mt in 2019, or 46 per cent of the global tech rubbish pile, Oceania has one of the highest per capita e-waste tallies. We throw out 16kg of e-waste per year, according to the UN report. 

The waste pile is expected to grow to 74Mt by the end of the decade, according to the UN, as countries drag the chain on introducing e-waste schemes. 

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Kiwis' throwaway culture

In New Zealand, the discarded jumble of unwanted electronic devices equates to around 97,000 tonnes of e-waste per year. How much of it is recycled? Local estimates put the figure at 1,600 tonnes equating to around 98 per cent of it going into landfill. While voluntary recycling schemes will take your old laptops and TVs for a small fee, there is no mandatory national scheme in New Zealand requiring e-waste to be recycled. 

As such, much of it ends up in landfill, with both precious and dangerous metals buried amidst other household and organic refuse. While the UN noted that New Zealand was considering the development of a national plan for dealing with e-waste, "e-waste product stewardship plans by individual producers are few and relatively minor".

"As well, there is no formalized system overall for e-waste management."

That puts us well behind Australia, the only could of 12 included in the Oceania section of the report to have a national e-waste recycling scheme in place.

In fact, the National Television and Computer Recycling Scheme (NTCRS) was implemented in Australia under the Australian Government's Product Stewardship Act 2011. It provides access to industry-funded collection and recycling services for televisions and computers.

Australia has put the onus on the consumer electronics industry, requiring it to fund collection and recycling of a proportion of televisions and computers disposed of each year. Government regulations require that the rate of recycling rise steadily to reach 80 per cent by 2026 - 2027.

So what is holding e-waste management back in New Zealand? It comes down to who will pay for it. An industry-funded scheme will ultimately result in the cost of electronic devices increasing. A mandatory user-pays scheme runs the risk of increased dumping of e-waste.

A number of voluntary and community-run recycling schemes muddle along but without the scale, they need to make a real impact. Without legislative measures, the industry has little incentive to push e-waste schemes, though the likes of the mobile phone companies do facilitate phone recycling.

What are we junking?

But pressure on New Zealand to get serious about e-waste is likely to grow. We are now the only country in the OECD without a national e-waste scheme.

On a global basis, what electronics are we junking?

According to the UN report, last year saw 17.4 Mt of it comprise small equipment, with 13Mt made up of large equipment. Temperature exchange equipment, such as refrigerators, air conditioning units and heat pumps represented 11Mt.

Screens and monitors, small IT and telecommunication equipment, and lamps represented 6.7 Mt, 4.7 Mt, and 0.9 Mt, respectively.

The UN revealed that the e-waste also represents a small goldmine, with US$0.7 billion of precious metals and other raw materials discarded each year in Oceania alone. Internationally, the discarded gold, silver and copper in electronics was estimated to be worth US$57 billion over the last five years.

The number of countries with a national e-waste policy has risen from 68 to 71 in the last five years but only 17.4 per cent of e-waste was collected and recycled in 2019.



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