Toxic timebomb: the impact of e-waste on our environment

Published: Thu 27 Jun 2019 02:04 PM
Lead, cadmium, mercury – these are just a few of the toxic heavy metals that are leaching into our soils and contaminating groundwater in large quantities – and it’s all thanks to the amount of e-waste that Kiwis are sending to landfill.
This toxic cocktail of chemicals infiltrates our soil, water systems, and oceans while contaminating the water we drink and the food that our families eat.
Even small quantities of these dangerous chemicals can wreak extensive, long-term environmental damage. Multiply that by the millions of inappropriately dumped e-waste items, and it’s not hard to see that we have a serious situation with disastrous implications.
A global challenge
Nine European countries lead the per capita production of e-waste, namely Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Austria, followed closely by the USA. All are wealthy, developed countries, with a consumerist culture where people with disposable income regularly upgrade their technology as it becomes available.
Too valuable to waste
What many don’t realise is that most electronic items contain non-renewable materials, such as tin, nickel, zinc, aluminium, copper and small amounts of precious metals. On average, a tonne of e-waste contains other valuable reusable resources such as 400kg of steel, 250kg of plastic, 90kg of non-ferrous metals and even 1.5g of gold and 15g of silver.
How toxic is my electronic waste?
About 20% of a CRT television is made up of lead, so that’s around 2.5kg per TV. Lead is a highly toxic substance. When high volumes are found in the blood, it can cause cancer, learning difficulties, behaviour problems and even death.
Yet CRT televisions are also 98% recyclable. So when you send your TV, and all it’s toxins, to landfill, you’re not only contributing toxins to the environment, but you’re also wasting resources that could otherwise be recycled.
A key culprit
One of the biggest contributors to e-waste is used printer cartridges. Instead of sending used cartridges to be recycled, most people will throw their printer cartridge in the bin, with the assumption that it will be disposed of in the same way as other landfill waste.
However, printer cartridges in fact take 450-1000 years to decompose. They also contain carcinogens and other chemicals, which are harmful to both humans and the environment. The more printer cartridges that end up in landfill, the more likelihood we have of contaminated water supplies and soil.
By taking steps to reduce this damaging output of waste, we could prevent hundreds of thousands of greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere, while making local ecosystems healthier and more likely to flourish.
What about on our own shores?
E-waste is the fastest growing toxic waste stream in New Zealand. Every year, New Zealand generates over 80,000 tonnes of electronic waste, much of which contains toxic elements.
New Zealand lags behind many of our major trading partners in terms of e-waste legislation. At this stage, New Zealand effectively has no e-waste disposal controls. In the past, there have been two commendable Government funded initiatives carried out: the e-Day collections, and the TV takeback campaign. Unfortunately, these programmes no longer operate.
E-waste can be turned into e-scrap by recycling it, and promisingly, New Zealand has a small but growing e-scrap processing industry.
A ban, like that put in place by the Victorian Government in Australia recently, would mean that e-waste could no longer be placed in any household bin and would instead have to be taken to an e-recycling facility or drop-off point. This legislation would ensure e-waste is appropriately and safely dismantled, sorted and reprocessed. Unfortunately though, there is currently no law in New Zealand preventing e-waste being sent to landfills.
Find a responsible recycler with a Certified License, like Computer Recycling Ltd. This license demonstrates that they adhere to the cleanest and most responsible standards for e-waste recycling, and will ensure that any data is cleared through their recycling process.

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