Meet the organisation diverting thousands of tonnes of waste from landfill

By Phil Crawford

Peter Fraher
Have you ever wondered what happens to used polystyrene and plastic wrap? Phil Crawford talks to an Auckland organisation working seven days a week to keep packaging and other products out of landfill through recycling and reuse.

There’s a large space at the sprawling premises of Abilities Group on Auckland’s North Shore that fills up every week with polystyrene packaging that’s no longer needed. White slabs are stacked everywhere and it looks like it could be the special effects workshop for an Arctic sea ice disaster movie.

By Wednesday the piles are starting to expand but Managing Director Peter Fraher says there will be twice as much by Friday. That’s the day when critical mass is reached and it’s time to switch on the machine that grinds polystyrene down, a bit like a giant blender, so that it can be compressed into small blocks. By the end of the process 150 cubic metres of polystyrene is reduced to a tiny 1.7 cubic metres. It is then sent to Malaysia to be reprocessed into a new material which is used by a company in China to make decorative mouldings like picture frames. Peter says it’s very satisfying to see products being given another life.

“We know throwing used products away is a waste of money and resources and bad for the environment. It’s good to see more businesses are looking at how they can recycle and reuse waste so that it’s not going into landfill.”

Product stewardship

Abilities Group has been running for more than 60 years and now provides businesses with end of life solutions for products including polystyrene, soft plastic, paper, cardboard and e-waste. Its recycling services are also open to the public seven days a week.

It supports a number of product stewardship schemes run by businesses that are taking responsibility for reducing the environmental impacts of their products. That means moving away from our throw away culture to a more circular economy where products are designed to last longer and are reused, repaired, re-purposed or recycled when they’re worn out or no longer needed.

The government-accredited soft plastics recycling scheme is a good example of product stewardship in action. Soft plastics are usually found in the wrap that’s used for a wide range of products, from toilet paper to t-shirts. Abilities Group collects discarded wrap from participating businesses including Lulu Lemon, The Warehouse, Kathmandu, Frucor, Nestle, Huckleberry Farms and Naturally Organic and Z Energy. It is then sorted, baled and transported to Future Post, a business in Waiuku that turns it into plastic fence posts.

The soft plastics recycling scheme is voluntary but Peter is a strong advocate for it and other product stewardship schemes to be mandatory.

“Personally I’m very much in favour of making it compulsory. It’s the responsibility of those producing the packaging to ensure that it’s recycled and doesn’t finish up in landfill. It needs to be up to them to reuse it or fully recycle it back into their own or other products.”

He says the same applies to electronic products.

“When TV manufacturers make a product they send it out into the world knowing it’s going to cost money to recycle it but they don’t make any provision for that. They get away with it and it’s wrong. That’s why product stewardship needs to be mandatory.”

He says the recycling costs should be included in the purchase price so the consumer knows the product will be recycled at the end of life at no extra cost to them.

Electronic waste

E-waste is one of the Government’s priority areas for product stewardship. Soon it will be compulsory for electronic goods companies to include end of life solutions for the products they make and sell.

Peter welcomes the move which he says has been a long time coming.

“When I started this job there was talk of New Zealand setting up a mandatory e-waste product stewardship scheme. It’s now 16 years later and it’s only just happening. That’s too slow.”

E-waste, which includes televisions, computers, tools and household gadgets, has certainly become a major recycling stream for the organisation. Back in Peter’s early days they were processing about 12 tonnes of e-waste a year. That figure is now closer to 2000 tonnes a year. When mandatory schemes come in Peter expects that figure could double. E-waste comes from businesses and public drop off. Three trucks are constantly collecting from sites around the city.

When an e-waste product arrives at Abilities Group it is dismantled. Valuable parts like the circuit boards go to Japan so precious metals can be recovered. Anything made of metal goes to Sims Pacific metals in Auckland for recycling. Hard plastics are sent to Malaysia where they are made into small pellets so they can be repurposed into other plastic products made in China.

The organisation also supports product stewardship schemes run by Fisher & Paykel Healthcare for its sleep apnea machines and by Zoetis for its veterinary diagnostic devices. When one of these units reaches the end of its life it is sent to Abilities Group to be dismantled and all the components are recycled.

Abilities Group is an Incorporated Society, established in 1959 to employ people with disabilities and provide work for them in as near normal conditions as possible. The organisation now employs 150 people. Around 70% have a disability of some kind.

Abilities Group is also one of the partners promoting the Aotearoa Product Stewardship Campaign, an initiative led by the Sustainable Business Network.

Photo: Peter Fraher, Abilities Group Managing Director.