About 1000 tonnes of computers, etc. were dropped off at 'eDay 2009' a few weeks ago. Nicky Wagner (ChCh MP) promoted it and was planning to be at the ChCh site on the day. I mention that because Mrs Wagner appears to be an environmentalist, which is a constant worry.
Anyway, whenever I see these sorts of things I ask four questions:
- Who pays?
- Where does it go?
- Why bother?
- What brainwashing has taken place?
Answer: Sadly yes, this was funded by the Ministry for the Environment, established in 1986. This ministry was apparently a leader in purchasing fancy coffee machines and colour photocopiers for its offices, so perhaps they have more e-waste than others. In particular, it seems the Ministry paid for a jolly:
CANZ was invited by CRTNZ Limited to visit South Korea to meet withThe total cost is not disclosed, but should be.
government officials and visit e-waste recycling facilities in the
Seoul area and Nonsan, in Chung Nam Province south of Seoul....The visit took place over three days from 10 - 12 June 2009
2. Where does it go? We want to know where the material ends up, so we can judge the benefits and costs of the programme. In many cases (such as Christchurch's entire recycling programme) this information is murky, or changes more often than administrators admit.
Answer: A good attempt to answer this question is made on the web site. For example:
Once it arrives at the recycling plant in South Korea, all non-working
monitors are manually disassembled and the following materials
recovered for reuse:
• copper wire and polymer coating
• circuit boards and valuable metals such as copper, lead and zinc
• unleaded glass
• steel and other metals.
Most of the weight of a computer is in the metal case and internals. The PCBs are a fairly small amount, but the page makes much of the recovery of gold and other metals from the PCBs. Perhaps this helps to pay the cost. But seems likely that recycling these items is not much less intensive (in terms of energy and cost) than manufacturing them in the first place. Also, while gold contacts are used, these are considered a 'high-cost' item in the industry, used only where needed.
The bulky components on a PCB are connectors which are a mixture of metal and plastic, carefully bound together. It's not easy to imagine a process to recover that automatically, or cheaply. Bear in mind that plastic is a oil by-product and is pretty cheap. 'Cheap' means environmentally cheap too, in case you have forgotten.
No comment is made about hard disks, which are fairly hefty items, certainly weighing more than the PCBs.
In any case, the material does appear to go somewhere useful and a genuine effort has been made to try to make sure it isn't just dumped in another part of the world.
3. Why bother?
Given that the event is staffed with volunteers, has sponsors, and keeps the proceeds from its efforts, yet still needs funding, it is clearly nowhere near being a viable commercial venture. Without knowing the cost it is hard to make an assessment of the worth of the programme. In general, disposing of e-waste in a landfill causes no problems other than hand-wringing from environmentalists (car batteries are surely much worse). Landfills are designed to cope with toxic materials (at enormous cost) so it seems that the efforts to divert these from the landfills are trying to solve the same problem twice. Still, environmentalists are good at blowing problems out of all proportion and then creating silly 'partial solutions' at enormous cost.
But there is a cost to landfill space (perhaps a several dollars a tonne) so it could be argued that the e-waste has saved several thousand dollars there.4. What brainwashing has taken place?
Normally this is done in schools. School children are told that the world will end unless they convince Daddy to take all their old computer junk to the E-day. My children regularly tell me things like that. Oddly they can seldom recall where they found out this information - almost never have they said 'from school' and yet that is the only conceivable place in most cases. Great brainwashing leaves little trace.
As well as e-waste disposalLooking at the brochure:
information, all schools will be provided with educational
posters and a downloadable schools’ kit that contains fun
activities for students to learn about sustainable e-waste
disposal and IT energy conservation. With the support of
the Microsoft NZ Partners in Learning Programme and NTICED,
an Australian educational software developer, the kit will
include a new activity utilising the animation software
MARVIN and eDay’s e-Waste Eddie character.
The highly-toxic chemicals leached by old electronic equipment such as lead, mercury and cadmium, pose a threat to the environment, wildlife and also human health. Exposure to mercury can cause brain damage, while lead damages our blood and nerve system as well as being highly toxic to plants and animals.This would be the mercury which is now used in domestic light bulbs, by the way. They almost became mandatory in New Zealand, and have recently become mandatory in the EU. According to this paper, an old CRT is responsible for about 12mg of mercury over its life, including production, power generation, power consumption in North America. Bearing in mind that a single light bulb has 5mg just in the bulb...
The paragraph quoted doesn't mention the steps taken to ensure than landfill material doesn't leach back into the earth, nor mention that it came from the earth in the first place. The mention of wildlife is spurious (has a sheep died of mercury poisoning?) but is good for children as it conjures up images of cuddly animals dying horribly because of Daddy' computer.