Clean technology: If the world's e-waste produced each year was put into containers on a train, it would stretch around the planet.
New Zealanders dispose of approximately 84,000 tonnes of unwanted electronic and electrical gadgetry every year - equating to approximately about 19kg of 'e-waste' per person per year being dumped in our landfills, not only burying precious resources but also preserving a cocktail of hazardous substances within the land.
Globally, some 20 to 50 million metric tonnes of e-waste - that's anything with a plug or batteries - are generated each year, comprising more than 5% - 7% of all municipal solid waste, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
If you were to put all that e-waste into containers on a train it would go once around the world.
In 2011, we bought 1.6 billion consumer electronics, up from 1.56 billion in 2010, with mobile phones and computers growing the fastest because they are replaced most often - about every 18 months for mobile phones.
According to a 2009 report from the United Nations Environment Programme the amount of e-waste being produced could rise by as much as 500 per cent over the next decade in some countries, such as India. In the bigger picture, over the past century, as the world's population has grown and become more urban and affluent, solid waste generation has risen tenfold. By 2025 it will double again.
It's not just about disposal
Whether we trash or recycle an unwanted electronic product like a mobile phone, it has already had an environmental and social impact throughout each phase of its life cycle.
Raw materials are first extracted from the earth - the most high-impact phase of the life cycle - with mining accounting for 7%-10% of the world's energy consumption. The materials are then refined, sent on to factories where the individual components are manufactured, before the final products are assembled.
Between 40% and 50% of the environmental impacts of a mobile phone occur during the manufacturing process, and extending the service life of a phone from one to four years decreases the impact by about 40%. The good news is there's a rapidly growing re-use industry with collectors taking in electronics and responsibly refurbishing or putting good working parts in them so they can be re-used.
When a product does reach the end of its life, recycling recovers the valuable resources and other components for re-use, while the handful of hazardous materials that cannot be recycled must be disposed of safely in landfills. In New Zealand, the Government has developed e-waste guidelines and a joint standard with Australia for recyclers and other organisations that collect, transport, reuse or recycle e-waste.
There is sometimes a cost to recycle a product in New Zealand. That's because recycling can be a complex and expensive process that involves collection, disassembly, identification of materials and where they can be recycled or refined, along with the safe management of some hazardous materials.
Working towards a cleaner future
Many electronics companies are focusing on phasing out hazardous substances from their products, providing post-consumer e-waste collection for recycling and addressing the energy embedded in the gadgets' manufacturing and supply chains.
Many countries have also imposed 'product stewardship' regulations requiring those involved in the life cycle of specific products, including e-waste, to manage and minimise the risks throughout that cycle.
Here, the Government is keen to see more industries step up and voluntarily develop their own product stewardship solutions, encouraged and in some cases required by the Waste Minimisation Act.
What you can do
• Think twice before buying , do you really need it, or do you just want it?
• Repair and upgrade where possible
• Re-use the item before recycling it - many mobile phone companies offer a buy-back service for the growing re-use market overseas. Freecycle? DonateNZ? Sell on TradeMe?
• Look for durable products that can be upgraded by replacing components instead of the entire unit
• Stewardship - many electronics brands operate free take-back and recycling services for their equipment
• Choose products that use less energy - look for the Energy Star rating system
• Choose products that have a low impact - look for the Environmental Choice label or a similar
• Recycle - check with your local council as disposal and recycling options can vary. Use a reputable recycler - ask about processes - do they have permits to export to smelters overseas?
• The Ministry for the Environment has information at mfe.govt.nz/issues/waste/weee/, but you can also contact the brand or retailer
More than 145,000 unwanted TVs have been collected across the country as part of the Government's TV TakeBack programme.
The Government has teamed up with recyclers, retailers and councils to provide a range of convenient locations to dispose of their TVs responsibly. Coinciding with the switchover from analogue to digital television, TV TakeBack is helping keep TVs out of landfills while raising awareness of e-waste and the importance of recycling. As with all forms of e-waste, televisions - particularly old TVs with a cathode ray tube (CRT) - contain hazardous substances such as lead that can leach into the environment.
TV TakeBack is currently operating across the North Island and, as part of the programme, the Government is subsidising the cost to the public of recycling their TVs, which is no more than $5.
For information and a list of all operating TV drop-off points, visit tvtakeback.govt.nz