The world is drowning under a mountain of modern lifestyle electronics. Not the ones we use, but the ones we throw out when they stop working or just get upgraded.
John Gertsakis has over 20 years experience as an industry adviser, consultant and research academic on e-waste, and he says we need to do better.
"Electronic products are proliferating. And these are consuming vast amounts of limited resources," he says. It is a double whammy as old electronic products, or e-waste, contain hazardous substances as well as recoverable materials.
Yet although we create over 80,000 tonnes of e-waste a year in New Zealand, we are not doing enough to tackle the growing issue compared to other developed countries. It is still cheaper to throw something away than to get it recycled safely.
Gertsakis believes that the real work starts long before anything is tossed on the electrical scrap heap. "How do we improve the lifecycle of products? How do you redesign dishwashers to use less water, detergent, energy, and are made for end of life disassembly?"
Even the best dishwasher will need replacing eventually, and companies that make products need to take responsibility beyond the sale, at end of life. "We need to shift cost from councils back to those that benefit, back to the producers," he says. It is a concept often referred to as product stewardship.
And he believes New Zealand is barking up the wrong tree if we are serious about tackling the problem. In Gertsakis' view, short-term programmes, incentives for individual schemes and endless Ministry reports do not cut it; the only way for us to get a pass mark for managing our e-waste is legislation and regulations that are long term and cover the whole industry.
Sure, we have notable successes, he admits, including some manufacturers, retailers such as The Warehouse and other programmes. Fuji Xerox's own Zero landfill scheme is one picked out by Gertsakis and praised by others including Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith. The company has just received certification for their programme to take back all their products, reusing what they can and getting the rest recycled.
The Ministry for the Environment administers the Waste Minimisation Fund. This charges $10 per tonne of landfill and pulls in around $30 million each year, giving half to local councils for dealing with waste and using the rest to support specific programmes.
According to MfE figures the TV Takeback programme used up over $11 million to collect around 228,000 old TV's, recovering some materials and dealing with the hazardous substances hidden in them. Our annual E-Day pulled together the public, manufacturers and other organisations for some years.
It isn't enough, Gertsaks says.
"There is a naive belief from policymakers that the sector will fund this in New Zealand. The reality is there are very few permanent voluntary programmes for electronics around the world. You need regulation that requires all brands to fund the system."
Under our Waste Minimisation Act, e-waste could be declared a 'priority product', which would trigger a more comprehensive product stewardship solution. That has the support of Local Government NZ, but their pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears down in the Beehive.
He points to the Australian model, where four years ago a bipartisan approach in Parliament lead to their Product Stewardship Act. All importers and manufacturers of any size must fund and join an approved scheme to deal with their products when they eventually turn to rubbish. Recycling targets start small, 30% in the first year, but ratchet up to 80% by 2022. And while the resulting programmes are not perfect they are a very good start, he says.
The European Union has had Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations for over 12 years and other parts of the world have followed in their footsteps, so products are already designed with end of life recovery in mind. Products are often made with less hazardous substances in the first place such as using lead-free solder.
But Gertsakis contends that e-waste management won't happen in a way that really tackles the problem without a Government that is keen to see it through. Our trans-Tasman neighbours have managed to break through any allergy they had to regulation.
"The reality is it's not manufacturers that run these take-back and recycling schemes. Industry funds a scheme and outsources it to the waste management and reverse logistics industry. You don't have to be manufacturing in a country to provide a recycling scheme."
He is waiting for New Zealand to have a change of heart. Until then we won't make the grade.