HOME Technology Nov 2008
Electronic effluent epidemic
Safe disposal essential
TV sets, PCs, laptops, printers, cellphones, routers, mice, games consoles and all other electronic equipment has a finite life, sooner or later the tube burns out, the disk crashes, the parts are no longer available or repair costs are higher than replacement value.

Consumers it seems are on a constant upgrade path to the latest and greatest with little thought about what happens to the old equipment; most often smaller items end up in the garbage bin and larger units are saved up for the local council inorganic collection.

What happens to them beyond that point could constitute one of the great environmental crimes of the century. In New Zealand the 450,000 or so computers people purchased eight years ago are typically destined for a landfill, where over time the brew of chemicals and heavy metals renders down into a toxic soup that leaches into the soil and ultimately the water table.

This year during October’s second national e-Day event, New Zealanders handed over 946 tonnes of old computer equipment and mobile phones which might previously have ended up in landfills. This was double the amount collected during the first e-Day in 2007.

Double the waste

According to the organizers, more than 16,600 carloads of electronic waste was dropped off at 32 centres filling 135 containers. More than 87,000 computer items including monitors, CPUs and printers were collected.

The Computer Access New Zealand Trust (CANZ) which organised the event estimates there are more than 16 million electronic computers and TV in New Zealand, with nearly a million added each year.

All e-Day collections are handled by accredited recyclers who claim over 95 percent of the materials in a computer can be recovered and re-used, and precious metals such as copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver recovered and turned into new products.

RCN general manager Kevin Ruscoe says all electronics contain hazardous components including lead, mercury and phosper which can impact human health. "We’re trying to work with city councils who still allow old computers and CRT screens to be buried in landfills rather than disposing of them properly."

Stripped down

RCN had its origins as an IBM remarketing partner then got involved in cleaning up its own waste before expanding into the wider business of recycling. Its North Shore depot alone handles more than 100,000 items a year. About, 60,000 computers and screens are spruced up and returned to the field, the rest are stripped down and recycled through partners, whose methods allow around 99 percent of compounds and metals to be reclaimed.

"We pull all the components down, steel is re-cycled and the circuit boards are processed so all the mercury and lead is recycled or disposed of in a responsible manner. The plastics, which have a fire retardant in them, give off toxic fumes when burning and can cause cancer, so these are packaged up and disposed of separately through another company.

"It’s outrageous what we’re disposing of and we’re only getting rid of a very small percentage of what there is. The Waste Minimisation Bill will change all of that. People will no longer able to just place electronic e-waste in the ground," says Roscoe.

He says people need top start thinking responsibly. "They’re going to get charged to take it to the dump anyway so for the cost of going to McDonalds you may as well drop if off at one of our disposal sites in Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch. People are dropping off their old TVs and computers and printers to us all day everyday."

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