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.
Many of these items would be gladly received by small community groups, non-governmental organizations who are short on money and resources. Due to their rapid depreciation in value many people do not stop to consider alternatives to disposal of unwanted devices.
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. ArIn the process of that they would contaminate the soil, thereby potentially making crop production unsafe.
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 such as the Hazardous Substances and Noxious Organisms Act requiring toxic materials to be identified; the Resource Management Act to change the rules for land fills where so much of this ends up