Recyclers call on the Government to ban dumping of electronic waste
E-waste recycling companies are calling on the Government to ban the dumping of electronic equipment at landfills and mandate that they be processed at specialist facilites.
Kevin Ruscoe, general manager of Lower Hutt-based IT Recycla, said the explosion in electronic consumer goods, including computers, TVs, printers and stereos over the last 20 years had resulted in large amounts of toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, beryllium, cadmium, and chromium at dump sites.
IT Recycla has bought a new processing plant and an eddy current separator to break apart and process a portion of the 80,000 tonnes of e-waste dumped each year.
“The Government needs to straight out ban the dumping of e-waste and then get out of the way and let companies like us deal with it,” he said.
* Kiwi innovation uses microbes to extract precious metals from e-waste
* Treasure in trash: Kiwi company turns e-waste into precious metals
* Roger Hanson: The dark side of mobile phones
* Tech companies partnering up to mine gold from old electronics
Ruscoe said he had long been concerned about the environmental impact of e-waste going to landfills which accounted for 70 per cent of toxic waste in dumped there.
“We promote ourselves as being so pure in New Zealand, but really our approach to this type of recycling has been Third World,” he said.
Ruscoe said the majority of the e-waste he worked with came from Government agencies and private companies.
“A few years ago we had a free e-day for the public and ended up with a queue of cars 7 kilometres long. We underestimated the demand from the wider public,” he said.
IT Recycla had 12 workers across its sites in Lower Hutt and Auckland.
The new Lower Hutt plant will break down and separate base metals like steel, aluminium and copper from the plastics and printed circuit boards so that they can be recycled to make new products, Ruscoe said.
The printed circuit boards were exported to specialist refineries to recover materials and to process residual toxins.
Ruscoe said the processing plant and eddy current separator, which uses a magnet to remove metals from the waste, would be 99.5 per cent effective in separating out the materials containing the toxic substances once fully operational next year.
The eddy current separator would be the first of its kind in New Zealand, he said.
E-waste would go through several shredding, shaking, sorting and separation processes.
Ruscoe declined to say how much the plant cost but said it had been a significant investment for the company.
Other e-waste recyclers support Ruscoe’s call for stricter regulations covering e-waste.
However, Mint Innovation commercial manager Thomas Hansen said the local market had its challenges such as sparsely populated regions where it was difficult to get the waste to recycling facilities.
There was also little incentive to invest in recycling technology or infrastructure without a regulatory framework, he said.
“E-waste in landfills needs to be outlawed for environmental reasons,” Hansen said.
“But we also need producer pays schemes to incentivise the switch from dumping to recycling to support the development of infrastructure.”
Alan Liefting, managing director of Ecotech Services in Christchurch, said he supported the Government’s product stewardship model announced in June.
”This would mean that manufacturers or importers would have to pay to have their items disposed of correctly at the end of its useful life,” Liefting said.
”Product stewardship means that everyone in the chain takes a role in looking after the equipment and making sure it doesn’t end up in the environment causing pollution.”
Auckland University of Technology waste management expert Dr Jeff Seadon said while e-waste was a concern on several fronts, it was also a rich source of precious metals like gold, silver and palladium.
“On one end of the spectrum we are digging those out of the ground as fast as we can go around the world, and at the other end of the spectrum, they are just being thrown into landfills,” Seadon said.
The concentration of the precious metals was higher in landfills than the virgin ores that came out of the ground, he said.
”We could mine landfills instead of mining the ground. And even better than that would be not to put them in there in the first place and to divert them before they get to the landfills.”
Most landfills could contained e-waste toxins but New Zealand’s older landfills were problematic, Seadon said.
They were primarily those that had been consented before the Resource Management Act came into force in 1991.
”These can be best described at dumps. It's the old era ones that we are getting the difficulties with. There was no liner, no methane collection and no proper cover, which allowed water to pass through creating more leachate that spilled into the environment. In addition, they were often located by the seaside or near waterways.”
About 135 tonnes of rubbish was strewn down the Westland coast after an old landfill site opened up during storms in 2019.
The asbestos-contaminated Kaiaua landfill, near Thames, was also exposed during storms in 2014.