Exploring e-waste with Abilities – the SBN tour

21 April 2015

Where do computers go when they die? What is inside your TV? Abilities, an Auckland-based charity that employs people with disabilities, opened its factory for SBN members to discover the secrets of e-waste.

Technology and the 21st Century go hand in hand. We churn through the latest models of iPads, pods or phones, laptops, flat-screen TVs, spiffy kitchen appliances and electric toothbrushes creating a waste stream which is difficult, and dangerous, to deal with. So what do we do with these products once they no longer work, or they’ve been rendered obsolete by the latest and greatest version?

It’s no paltry question. It’s been estimated that the global production of e-waste is more than 25 million tonnes each year. As development levels rise around the world, and poorer countries emulate the habits of the Western world, Latin America, Eastern Europe and China will also become major e-waste producers.

In New Zealand, some say we chuck away 20 kilograms of e-waste per person every year – and it’s ending up in our landfills. 

Here’s where Abilities, an incorporated society based on Auckland’s North Shore, steps in. The not for profit was established more than 50 years ago, aiming to enrich the lives of people with disabilities by providing meaningful work. It now employs 140 staff, of which 125 have a disability. Over the last ten years, says Managing Director Peter Fraher, the incorporated society has branched into the recycling sector. “It’s the fastest growing waste stream,” says Peter. “It’s unbelievable what a throw-away society we have become.”

The Sustainable Business Network visited Abilities last week, taking to the factory floor with a group of Auckland-based members to see how the not for profit diverts precious metals from landfill. Circuit boards, for example, contain gold, copper, silver and palladium and are found in everything from TVs to smart phones to keyboards. Abilities has obtained a Basel permit to export these to Japan, where the precious metals are recovered and can be reused again, ultimately diminishing the need for virgin mining projects. “That’s a key reason to recycle,” says Peter. “It’s just criminal to waste those precious metals.”

Although Abilities receives its fair share of appliances, telephones, kettles and toasters, the majority of waste that Abilities receives is IT equipment: things like desktops, laptops, screens and routers. When digital TV became mainstream in New Zealand, Abilities was flooded with older cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs. These can be broken down but require a bit of effort and clever machinery, which is why CRT TVs are one of the few things you need to pay to drop off. 27 per cent of the funnel glass contains lead, which is sent to Korea to be repurposed and reused; the poisonous phosphorous powder needs to be sucked out. When an old TV is left on the side of the road and damaged, these noxious chemicals can get into our waterways and have a huge impact on the creatures, and humans, that use the waterways. 

At Abilities there’s a real emphasis on local solutions to waste. 30 per cent of e-waste is steel, and skip-fulls are sent to SIMs in Otahuhu, Auckland. Copper wire is stripped back by workers and sent in giant, gleaming mounds to Hayes Metal in Onehunga where it can be returned to pure copper and reused. The organisation also gets regular paper and plastic recycling, and runs such a tight ship that less that 1.5 per cent of what comes in the door is sent to landfill.

There are plenty of ways for businesses to connect with Abilities’ recycling including paper, confidential document destruction and e-waste recycling services. It will even provide 240 litre e-waste bins for businesses, charities or schools which can be dropped off to the Glenfield facility, open seven days, or collected by Abilities for free (if the waste contains no TVs or printers, which cost $20 and $5 to recycle respectively). If the e-waste is too large Abilities can place it on a pellet. 

Abilities is also developing new recycling services. You can watch your hard drives get crunched to bits (the aluminium gets recycled) with its new secure hard-drive destruction system, one of only two Auckland-based companies that offer the service; and it has recently set up a fluorescent lamp crusher which crushes lamps to bits, with the remnants being sent to Australia to separate out and reuse the mercury. This is ideal for businesses going through office refurbishments, or even electricians. 

Basically, Abilities takes anything electronic and anything with a plug on it, in order to save resources (and energy, which, in most other countries comes from fossil fuels like coal) from being biffed in the bin. And it makes sense financially, as most people would have to invest in the cost of a skip bin to throw these products out anyway. “Throwing these resources into a landfill just doesn’t make sense,” says Peter.

Companies are increasingly discovering more about their supply chain and finding that e-waste is a major issue. Spiff Media’s Richie Lovelock, who came on the Abilities tour, said he was interested in finding out what he could do with all his e-waste in order to reduce his company’s environmental impact.  “As a small web company, we have accumulated a lot of gear over the years. We’ve never had a good way of dealing with it, so I was interested to see how Abilities handles this stuff. They also do an awesome job of recycling e-waste, while giving people with disabilities a place in the workforce.”

Globally there are trends to reduce the amount of ever-increasing e-waste. E-waste bans to landfill, for example, have been looked at in the state of Victoria.  However, before these can be successful in New Zealand, says Peter, we need to challenge the prevailing mentality. “There’s still a huge education challenge, especially in Auckland. It’s a real challenge for us to explain that for some objects, like your TVs, there is a recycling fee involved.” Peter.

Potential solutions could include product stewardship schemes, where consumers pay an upfront cost for recycling. “It doesn’t seem like such a big cost when you buy something at the beginning of its life, but paying to recycle a TV when it is of no use to the consumer can be unpalatable to some,” says Peter.

How to make sure a business is correctly recycling your e-waste:

It is the same as any business relationship. You need to know how your recycler operates and that you can trust them.

Ask them questions!
Where does the product go?
How do they process it?
Do they have any proof?
Do they have the proper permits? Basel permits are required to export hazardous waste out of New Zealand, and the permit must be obtained through the Environmental Protection Agency. Abilities has several Basel permits for exportation.

The event and article is part of SBN’s mission to accelerate the circular economy in NZ.