Tonnes of treasure trapped in trash

Last Sunday, Wellington officially switched from analogue to digital broadcasting. While it doesn’t render old cathode ray televisions entirely obsolete, most viewers dealt with the change by purchasing new televisions, which means a lot of sets gathering dust in the garage or taken to the dump. Amanda Witherell looks at what happens if you do the right thing and e-cycle it.

E-waste is loosely defined as ‘anything with a plug’ and it’s the fastest growing waste stream in the world. Most of New Zealand’s discarded televisions, computers, mobile phones, stereos, printers, fax machines – about 80,000 tonnes annually – ends up in landfills.

“By putting stuff like this into landfills we’re throwing away valuable resources. We’re also putting some of the most toxic substances into our landfills,” says Wanaka Wastebusters’ Tania Pilkinton. Only about 20 percent is discarded properly – broken down into separate components and recycled.

The government doesn’t classify e-waste a priority hazardous product, so there are no restrictions on where it ends up, merely suggestions from groups like Wanaka Wastebusters, eDay New Zealand Trust, Mana’s Trash Palace, and Sustainability Trust, which collects e-waste at their Tory Street location and take it to RCN Recycling.

RCN is located deep in the industrial heart of Seaview. It recently moved – its third location, each one ever larger, since Gary Fox started managing the place in March 2011. It’s already filled floor to ceiling with shrink wrapped pallets of electronics, waiting to be dismantled by Fox and his crew of four. Shelves are lined with large hand-labeled cardboard boxes: heavy grade copper, motherboards, back plane boards – the innards of your everyday objects. Cathode tubes line the floor in regimental rows.

A mountain of plastic cases – former TVs and computer screens – shadows the sun from an open door. Fox says that’s just two weeks of work. Every year, six 40-foot containers are filled with Wellington’s e-waste.

“It’s a growth industry,” Fox sums up, chatting while he disassembles a TV. First, he cracks the plastic case off the metal frame to expose the tube. To separate the tube from the screen, which actually has two pieces of glass – a back and a front – it’s put into a “screen splitter.”  The clear plastic hood looks like something you’d see in a science lab. Locked inside, the TV is injected with a current so hot it hums and pops as it breaks apart. Wearing a full hazardous suit, face mask, and Kevlar gloves, Fox vacuums phosphorous off the inside of the TV screen and into a metal drum, which will eventually go to a chemical recycler. In 15 months, it’s only about 10 centimetres deep. “By the time it’s full I could be in the old folks home,” he jokes.

“Once the phosphorus is removed, it’s just plain glass,” he adds, tossing it into a box full of thick, dark chunks. The whole process takes about 10 minutes.

Glass is one of the few parts recycled in New Zealand – at the moment, into insulation, but it’s being trialled for road aggregate. The TV’s back glass, which is about 25 percent lead, goes to Australia where it’s cleaned and shipped on to Malaysia to become medical material. The metal frame, copper coil, and nickel electron gun goes to scrap metal dealers in Lower Hutt. Cabling heads to a smelter in Auckland.

But that’s about it. New Zealand is too small to justify much recycling in-country. RCN ships the rest overseas to ISO 14000-approved facilities that adhere to global environmental standards. Circuit boards teeming with precious metals are deconstructed in Japan. Plastic full of flame retardants goes to China where it’s graded, melted, and reformed into fence posts, clock radios, DVD-players – the next generation of electronic goods.

“It’s the actual converting of products back to raw material,” says Jon Thornhill, RCN’s general manager of e-cycling. In the past few years the company has grown from a handful of locations to over 50 sites.

RCN charges $20 per TV, though other things like laptops, mobile phones, and office servers are free. The Ministry for the Environment has been promoting the TV TakeBake programme and gave $1million from the Waste Minimisation Fund to promote e-cycling and expand facilities like RCN by covering the dismantling and administration costs. However, RCN, Sustainability Trust, Trash Palace, and most other drop-off centres charge a fee.

That deters them from doing the right thing, argues eDay Trust’s Laurence Zwimpfer. From 2006, the Trust ran one-day annual events, however, that collection mode ceased in 2010 in favour of government-funded decentralised, year-round facilities like RCN.

Zwimpfer says both should still be happening. “In 2010 we had over 60 sites for one day, penetrating into the smaller centres where there’s low density population that doesn’t justify having a full-time collection centre. By having a public access point that’s free for the day, people come by the thousands.”

He also thinks New Zealand should adopt product stewardship schemes, similar to international programmes, where the cost is folded into the initial price of a TV or laptop and then electronics producers are responsible for collecting and recycling it.
Green MP Russel Norman says the Waste Minimisation Act of 2008 has helped. “There’s a levy on stuff going to landfills and that’s provided the funding to set up the e-cycling. The waste bill also provides a framework for product stewardship.” However, he adds, “National hasn’t wanted to use that capacity.”

The government’s most recent environmental policy paper, “Building A Blue Green Future,” says it will “explore the adoption of a product stewardship scheme.”

“Why don’t we just get on with it?” asks Zwimpfer. “There’s enough evidence coming from New Zealand and around the world that voluntary schemes don’t work. I saw it in Newtown the other day,” he adds. “A smashed TV on the road and the copper coil ripped out. It turns us back into a third world country.”

Originally published September 26, 2012 in Capital Times. 

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