New Zealand’s 89,000 ton e-waste problem

In December 2017 the International Telecommunications Union released a report on electronic waste (e-waste). It lambasted New Zealand and Australia for their lack of effort acknowledging what is a major environmental problem in both countries. 89,000 tons per annum are thought to be generated in New Zealand, of which only about 900 tons actually gets properly processed. This is what prompted the harsh I.T.U. comments, and the blasting by New Zealand e-waste campaigner, Laurence Zwimpfer. That blasting of New Zealand inspired me to write a Diploma dissertation of about 8,000 words on the subject.

My key findings were:

  1. A basic lack of awareness around e-waste does exist in New Zealand at all levels
  2. Official agencies at all levels are not doing enough to address the issue
  3. Responses so far have been ad hoc in nature with no national oversight
  4. Business opportunities exist for those wishing to take advantage of the “Urban Mine”

I made inquiries with City, District, Regional councils as well as the Ministry for Environment and Ministry for Consumer Affairs on how they perceive e-waste as an issue and what they are doing to deal with it. I used a survey of about 40 people to find out what members of the public thought about e-waste as an issue and their perceptions of New Zealand’s response.

The results were loud and clear. New Zealanders have a basic awareness of it, but do not know what their local council is doing, how to safely dispose of devices that no longer work or what the risks are. There was also little understanding of what is happening in the private sector regarding electronic waste. A few issues had to be understood such as people’s attitudes to faulty devices fixed instead of replaced and how the depreciation of value over the years influenced them.

Significant business opportunities exist for people wanting to develop e-waste extraction businesses. New Zealand has very little – if any – in the way of this so far. No framework under which such enterprises could operate has been established, and regulatory guidelines for handling the more toxic elements such as Cadmium (Cd), which goes into cadmium-nickel batteries will need to be established as well. Significant quantities of gold (600kg/p.a.), copper (600t/p.a.) along with unknown quantities of silver, palladium and other elements are waiting to be recovered.

Whilst New Zealand is lagging behind, it is more consistent with the third world nations such as India and Iran; Ghana and Colombia. E.U nations, plus Japan were found to be investing significant money and resources into developing comprehensive e-waste management plans and research into how it can be recycled.

My conclusions were that:

  1. New Zealanders have a basic awareness of the term e-waste – most had heard of it
  2. Much potential for the concept of the “urban mine”, where recycling elements from e-waste could become quite profitable business with both environmental and economic benefits
  3. All sectors of New Zealand need to do more to know and understand e-waste as an issue

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