Electronic waste or e-waste is one of New Zealand’s fastest growing waste streams. Traditional methods of disposal, namely landfill, could present us with unknown ecological and human health impacts as well as failing to take advantage of the huge economic benefits that e-waste recycling could provide.

Junk Run is at the front line of Auckland e-waste recycling. As part of our commercial waste removal service we remove, reallocate and recycle tons of e-waste every year. The issue of e-waste involves some fascinating insights, including the drivers behind our obsession with electronic goods to the exotic raw materials reshaping the world we live in. This blog will look at why e-waste needs to be managed more effectively.

Making mountains out of e-waste.

The best estimate the New Zealand Government has for the amount of e-waste disposed into landfill per year is around 80,000 tonnes – equating to 17kg per person.

Bulky outdated equipment makes a huge contribution to this. For example, the first mobile phone launched in New Zealand in 1987 and weighed 2kg. Legacy equipment includes everything from tape recorders to VCR’s that are still hanging around unused.

It could be encouraging to consider, that as technology improves and devices become smaller , (compare an old school Cathode Ray Tube TV to today’s ultra thin OLED ‘wallpaper’ TVs) then the amount going to landfill could reduce.

But as the population increases and electronic devices become more ingrained in our everyday lives, our per capita usage and therefore disposal will probably increase.

Coupled with sleek marketing, drip-releasing technology and so-called ‘planned obsolescence’, the latest devices are hugely desirable and explain our insatiable appetite for the newest gadgets.

And New Zealand is hungry. We imported NZ$2 Billion worth of electronics (mainly cellphones) from China in the year ending 2016.

This demand not only puts a huge strain on the earth’s resources but presents a huge problem with what to do with the mountains of obsolete technology and devices that are surplus to requirement.

Conspiracy!

Throwaway Technology.

In the 1920’s, the murky underworld of light bulb manufacturing hatched a plan to manufacture a bulbs with a shorter lifespan of just 1,000 hours. These low cost bulbs increased profits due to the high turnover as the customer regularly bought cheap replacement bulbs.

Using this example of the so called ‘Pheobus Cartel’ and superimposing it onto the modern day electronics industry feels far too conspiratorial for me. It’s hard to imagine a concerted effort being put into shortening the lifespans of products in a field which requires innovation and precision manufacturing. Enhancing the capability of products by drip feeding new features is enough for consumers to frequently replace products.

Furthermore, a report by the Oko Institut in Germany found that 60% of new T.Vs bought in 2012 were to replace functioning units. A combination of higher levels of disposable income and slick marketing is a powerful enough driver to explain our modern day obsession with technology.

The same report found no evidence that laptops now break sooner than a decade before but noticed that a quarter of replacements were due to a defect. Manufacturers are constantly faced with trade-offs to develop components at competitive prices so certain elements will always fail before others.

However, there is some evidence of planned obsolescence. Software incompatibility encourages consumers to upgrade to the latest goods. I am still using my iPhone 4 but I wasn’t able to upgrade to the latest iOS8 in 2014 – just four years after the phone was released.

The consumerism that dominates the 21st Century means that we live in a materially rich world – that in most respects – has improved our quality of life since before the industrial revolution. But we are not paying the full price for our electronic goods and not conserving our environment and resources with appropriate e-waste recycling. The consequence is that we are impoverishing our natural environment. How exactly, is the subject of the next part of our discussion into e-waste.

How rare earth elements are re-shaping our world.

Of the 83 stable, non-radioactive elements, at least 70 of them can be found in smartphones. That’s 84% of all of the stable elements. Vast global supply chains are required to bring them all into one place for manufacturing.

Amongst these elements are a number of strange materials called rare earth elements. These comprise 17 naturally occurring metals of which only one is not used in electronic devices due to high radioactivity. The name ‘rare’ is deceptive because the two least abundant elements are still 200 times as common as gold in the earth’s crust. Their rarity is due to the fact they don’t occur frequently in high abundance to be economical to extract.

Their unique magnetic, luminescent and electrochemical properties have made technology more lightweight, efficient and powerful. For these reasons, they are also known as the ‘technology metals’.

Currently, rare earth elements are mined in Australia, the United States, India, Brazil, Russia, Vietnam and Malaysia with exploration occurring in Canada, South Africa, Thailand, Malawi and Sri Lanka amongst others.

Where rare-earths are found in developing or authoritarian states, the lack of regulation makes it cheaper to extract and export.

This is particularly worrying because, the mining, transportation, processing, and waste disposal stages of rare earth metals may have very serious environmental and occupational risks.

For example, rare-earth metals are often found mixed together mixed with radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium. For every tonne mined, there is 1.4 tonnes of radioactive material generated. Even in 1990s California, Mountain Pass mine spilt hundreds of thousands of gallons of hazardous waste into the delicate desert ecosystem. In the post Fukushima world – even where strict controls are in place – environmental disaster could be moments away.

However, as of 2013, 90% of all rare earth elements are exported from China. With regards to neodymium, used for it’s permanent magnetic properties in hard drives, cellphone microphones electric cars and wind farms, it is estimated that China has only 30% of the world’s deposits.

This statistic suggests that China is more willing to pay the environmental and social price of rare-earth metal extraction.

Cerium, used as an essential component in phosphors in TVs, fluorescent lamps, catalytic converters and glass polishing in lasers is extracted using sulphuric and nitric acid on an industrial scale. The byproduct is highly toxic, radioactive tailings. Batou toxic lake in Inner Mongolia contains 3 times the background radiation rate due to Cerium extraction.

Unbelievably, black markets operations are found to be extracting these elements with flagrant disregard to the long term social and environmental consequences of extraction.

The environmental damage doesn’t stop there. Transportation of the end-product then causes climate altering carbon dioxide emissions and noxious air quality reducing particles.

It will be interesting to see if global power shifts to those nations who are able to exploit their rare-earth resources. In a similar way that fossil fuels have shaped international relations in the 20th Century – will the demand for technology metals form new political landscapes in the 21st Century?

There are a host of negative side-effects to the extraction of rare-earth metals  – created by our demand for electronic goods.  Throwing them into landfill after their short lifespans means repeating the damaging process of mining, processing and transportation.

Where is the e-waste recycling?

There have been few recycling efforts in the rare-earth industry. With rare-earth metals commanding higher prices, there is more incentive to recover these elements post-use through e-waste recycling, though it still seems the vast majority of these rare minerals end up in landfill.

Toxicity of E-waste in landfill.

A host of other toxic substances are used in e-waste such as mercury, cadmium, chromium and arsenic, brominated flame retardants and Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to name a few. These toxins can escape landfill after rainfall which carries out dissolved and suspended matter. This process is called leaching and the result is a nasty, unhealthy fluid called leachate. Leachate poses a huge threat to surface and groundwater if it escapes. Take for example, Levin Landfill in the Manawatu-Wanganui region of New Zealand. In 2016, it was established that leachate was being released into waterways and finding its way into the ocean.

Often, the accumulation of these toxins in the environment and organisms can have sub-lethal effect, such as the case with PCBs – meaning that their impact can be hard to detect without extensive studies. The tragic fact is that we really only understand the environmental impact when it is already out there destroying wildlife populations and adversely affecting human health.

Precious metals – a potential bonanza?

A precious metal is one that has a high economic value. A host of these are used in electronics goods from metals such as Copper, Gold, Zinc, Silver, Mercury and Cadmium. E-waste is considered to have concentrations of precious metals which are 40-50 times more abundant than naturally occurring deposits.

Apple announced in April 2016 that it recovered 2204 pounds (1000kg) of Gold worth a cool USD$40 million through take back initiatives.

Assuming this, there should exist a powerful incentive for recovering these materials through E-waste recycling. So, with such a bonanza available, why is it that only a small proportion of our E-waste is recycled? It’s because the costs of collection, reprocessing, storage, management and transport often exceeds the value of the recovered resources. Apple hid the true cost of this scheme – despite it seeming like a profitable venture.

But this is only because we are operating in with an economic model which doesn’t take into account the true cost of global environmental degradation. Consider the poisoned lakes in China, the crippling health implications of Chinese workers supplying rare-earth metals in the black market. Work out the economic impact of closing fisheries due to heavy metal accumulation in fish. Think about the leaching of toxic juices in your local stream or beach.

The way forward. As a signatory to the Basel Convention which bans the export of hazardous materials to developing countries – New Zealand has (rightly) been denied an outlet for the e-waste it produces.

New Zealand E-waste recycling by homes and businesses needs to be encouraged through better policy. Initiatives are required to prevent people stockpiling old devices, such as discounts for handing in old devices when buying new items. Most importantly, New Zealand needs to develop the infrastructure to collect and recycle e-waste and an economic model to make it environmentally viable. Fundamental to this is establishing product stewardship for the electronics industry. By shifting the financial cost of disposal to the producer, yes our smartphones will be more expensive, but we will be acknowledging the debt we owe to the environment for our devastatingly insatiable appetites.