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Executive summary

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is a diverse waste category, and international opinions regarding the impacts of various substances contained within WEEE vary. This study considers the quality and weight of scientific evidence and reports on the state of knowledge regarding both consensus and diversity in scientific opinion pertaining to these impacts, both internationally, and as applicable to New Zealand.

The aim of the review is to assess the state of knowledge and consensus on the environmental and health impacts of post-consumer WEEE, within the context of New Zealand landfills and potential illegal dumping. The objectives which need to be met in order to achieve the aim are:

  • Conduct a literature review of policy developments relative to WEEE internationally, focusing on known relevant case studies, and the underpinning reasons for the developments.
  • Use review material to characterise WEEE in New Zealand, within a global context, including the volumes and sensitivities of component types within the definition.
  • Conduct a literature review of the state of knowledge regarding the relevant dose-response relationships between WEEE substances, and human health and the environment.
  • Collate and analyse evidence in order to draw relevant conclusions regarding the state of knowledge and consensus on the environmental and health impacts of post-consumer WEEE, within the context of New Zealand landfills and potential illegal dumping.

The scope of the review is limited to human and environmental impacts arising when post-consumer WEEE is disposed in landfills or illegally dumped. It does not include the environmental and health impacts from the manufacture/production and consumer use of the components and products, or during WEEE recycling. The scope of each main component of the review is as follows:

  • International Policy and Regulation
  • WEEE products
  • WEEE componentry
  • Dose-response.

There is a wide range of means and measures to influence WEEE generation, management and impacts, ranging from restricting its generation through better design, enhancing recycling and reuse schemes, introducing market forces into waste through product stewardship programmes, and more use of classic 'end of pipe' solutions such as technically engineered landfills.

Well established principles such as 'polluter pays', 'prevention is better than cure' and the 'precautionary principle' have been applied to such initiatives by various Governments internationally, in the effort to strike a balance between maintaining the benefits of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) while minimising the environmental and human health costs of WEEE. Such initiatives can be loosely termed 'policy and regulation', and range from sponsorship of voluntary schemes to legislation mandating particular courses of action.

In considering the impacts of WEEE and the case for policy and regulation in New Zealand, it is relevant to review initiatives to date. For the purposes of this literature review several countries and regions have been used to describe the connection between policy, WEEE impacts and resulting legislation, directives, regulations and bans. These include: European Union (EU), United States of America (USA), Canada, Japan, and Australia.

While not conclusive, the following jurisdictional overview helps to highlight the breadth of activity in response to WEEE related impacts and issues. In policy terms, the WEEE and Restriction on the use of certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directives place the EU at the forefront of legislative developments.

Through present WEEE management systems, valuable materials are disposed of and lost to future generations through the present methods of waste management of discarded electrical products. Along with the loss of resources, environmental degradation from mining is of concern. It is not possible to give exact figures on the environmental impact of the extraction of all the materials contained in electrical and electronic equipment. This depends very much on the site and region where the materials are extracted.

As indicated in the literature (European Commission, 2000), the risks relating to placing discarded electrical equipment in landfill are due to the variety of substances they contain. Due to the range of different substances in WEEE, unpredictable toxic hazards are potentially created by landfilling. Co-disposal with municipal waste adds to the unpredictability, and spreads the problem. While licensed, controlled landfills with liners do not eliminate risks of pollution, the potential amounts and concentrations - and resulting environmental impacts - are considerably higher when WEEE is put in uncontrolled landfills.

While some studies are several years old, they remain relevant until new evidence is developed, and significantly more research is needed into the toxicity potential of WEEE. Until then, it is prudent to take a precautionary approach; indeed, three well-established principles can be drawn upon to guide policy development in WEEE management:

  • Precautionary principle; where theory or circumstantial evidence suggests damage potential exists, in the absence of fuller evidence, it is prudent to assume the worst case and legislate accordingly; [Based on overseas risk assessment work due to the absence of a detailed risk analysis specific to New Zealand.]
  • Prevention is better than cure; it is cheaper in the long run to prevent risks and impacts from occurring rather than to concentrate entirely on cleaning up problems, so eco-design mechanisms to minimise WEEE generation is a logical approach;
  • Polluter pays principle; those who create the risks should incorporate the costs of dealing with them into their operating costs, for example, through operating product stewardship programmes.

A major issue for policy formulation in New Zealand is the effect of policies and regulations elsewhere. The EU WEEE and RoHS Directives are already creating considerable industry transformation, and will bring new materials to the market, as well as new industries and techniques for effectively managing the product stewardship and end-of-life implications of the Directives.

They can also be expected to have effects outside Europe, with more toxic EEE being 'dumped' onto markets in countries with less developed policy and regulations.