There is a major type of pollution that is going completely unnoticed by the media, which I think needs to be mentioned. Electronic waste has been around ever since electronic appliances and equipment began to be manufactured, but it has only been in the last 25-30 years that concerns have started to be raised about the effect it is having on the environment in terms of the metals that are being mined in Africa for use in it, right through to issues to do with what happens to devices no longer wanted, or which are broken or otherwise cannot be used. This post attempts to answer some of the questions about electronic waste.
What is electronic waste?
It is the unwanted electronic appliances we have at home, electronic equipment used in businesses and industry that is no longer needed. The laptops and desktops, the i_________ (iPhone, iPad, iPod, etc)devices, the C.D./D.V.D. players, the televisions, microwaves, washing machines, the old cassette players, the old VHS and VCR recorders when they are no longer able to be used are considered electronic waste (e-waste).
Why is electronic waste dangerous?
When electronics are junked, they still contain the plastics, the metals and other substances that went into their manufacture. The diodes, the wiring, and so forth all contain substances and minerals that are very toxic. For example the printer inks and toners that go in printers including the ones used at home and in small offices, contain cadmium which can cause cardiovascular (heart)disease. Batteries, fluorescent lamps, switches and thermostats all contain mercury. You can see the United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Register for more information on these and other toxic hazards posed by e-waste.
How bad is the problem in New Zealand?
In a word, significant. Although local councils are aware of the hazards posed by e-waste, few appear to have a long term plan for dealing with it within their territorial confines and there is no statutory requirement under either the Local Government Act 2002 or the Resource Management Act 1991 to produce and implement management plans for this type of waste. Although New Zealand is a signatory to the Basel Convention which is an international legal instrument established to prevent the export of such waste to inappropriate facilities in developing nations.
Because of the limitations, and the general lack of public knowledge about the problems posed by this type of waste, e-waste goes into local tips, refuse stations, rubbish bins and where ever the user decides to dispose of it. Less than 1% of the 80,000 tons generated per annum goes into recycling programmes, whose establishment in New Zealand has been sporadic at best. The Environmental Protection Authority (E.P.A. – not to be confused, though similar in nature with the American Environmental Protection Agency)information seems to be more targetted at businesses rather than private individuals, such as I and you the reader.
What problems can e-waste cause?
There are numerous problems that e-waste can cause, but the most significant is probably leachates getting into ground water from improperly designed waste tips and refuse stations. In the process of that they would contaminate the soil, thereby potentially making crop production unsafe.
What problems is e-waste causing?
In Africa where much of the rare mineral needed to manufacture the electronics comes from, this is an ongoing emergency in slow motion. In countries with very weak or no labour safety legislation much less authorities able and willing to enforce the laws, many fall sick from handling highly toxic substances without even the most basic safety implements such as face masks, or gloves. Because these same countries lack proper environmental laws or planning mechanisms, there is very likely a significant environmental toll being extracted at the expense of communities. The poor situation combined with questionable treatment of local communities by mining companies raises the potential for violence as communities try to express their frustration. Such incidents already occur on the Niger delta which has numerous oil rigs and in Papua New Guinea where mining companies have been confronted by angry locals, who have sometimes been armed.
What can be done?
There are a number of things that can be done in New Zealand, and they include:
- Requiring local councils to adopt management plans for this type of waste
- Set up a nation wide recycling programme
- Set up education programmes in the community
- Amend appropriate legislation requiring toxic materials to be identified
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