Reducing harm from waste: Product stewardship

Product stewardship is an environmental management strategy for a product through all stages of its life. From when it is designed, through its production to the end of its life, product stewardship requires all who are involved in the life cycle of a product to to take responsibility for its environmental impact.

A product stewardship scheme is being investigated by the Ministry for the Environment, which is now taking public submissions on the matter. Instead of using the linear economy model which promotes the current destructive and wasteful practices, the circular economy is viewed as a more responsible model. In a linear economy natural resources are taken from the ground, they are made into something in a factory, which is then used by humans before being disposed of. In a circular economy goods are manufactured, the consumer uses them before they get returned to the manufacturer. The manufacturer will then ensure that the valuable components such as wiring, microchips and so forth as well as valuable elements such as gold, copper, silver and palladium which make up the device can be extracted and reused.

This makes logical sense for a range of products that are either resource intensive to make. One such example is aluminium which requires a smelter. These typically require many megawatts of electricity to run so that the smelter pots can melt it. Recycled aluminium is much less energy intensive to melt down and can be reused many times over.

There are a range of environmental and economic benefits that have been identified by the Ministry. There is scope for significant technological innovation, development of new processes and improvements in efficiency that can be found.

It has taken awhile to get this far. The first serious move to address this growing problem was in 2008, when the then Fifth Labour Government introduced the Waste Minimisation Act 2008. It set its purpose down as thus:

The purpose of this Act is to encourage waste minimisation and a decrease in waste disposal in order to—

  •  protect the environment from harm; and
  • provide environmental, social, economic, and cultural benefits.

This seems a rather outdated purpose for the Act. Protecting the environment from harm is obvious, but it could have defined harm, which I have assumed to mean “harmful waste and waste making practices in the natural environment”. The second part is also quite vague and extremely broad. As with the previous part I have tried to be more specific and therefore clarify “environmental” as the natural as well the man made environments (urban areas, significant human activities); “social” as society wide in terms of health, education, and so forth. In terms of economic gains, I look at the potential for energy development, technological innovation and potential export opportunities – New Zealand prides itself on being clean and green but shows reluctance to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the more proper management of waste.

I hope that something serious comes of this. New Zealand cannot afford further dilly dallying on its environmental reputation. Tourists are starting to see us for what we are – a nice nation with a few dirty secrets – and they are saying so to their families and friends when they go home. If we want those people to come as visitors we need to do better. If we want “clean and green” to be honest, we need to do better. This is as good a place as any to start.

Boosting the economy

One of the continuing frustrations of National and Labour governments is that both parties are guilty of incessantly arguing over how to divide up the tax pie. Yet neither party seems to think about how to grow that pie.

My view of New Zealand economics is therefore perhaps not so much left-wing or right-wing as it is about a third way type of response. In explaining this, two assumptions need to be made. The first is we assume that a conservative response is to loosen regulations on things such as the environment (Resource Management Act), employ laws that businesses might be complaining about and cutting government expenditure on social issues to fund tax cuts. The second is that a socialist response is the reverse – tighten up these laws, increase expenditure on social issues and raise tax to pay for this.

I take a third view. New Zealand has long prided itself on its “No. 8 wire ingenuity”, which is great, but along with that perception of resourcefulness and creativity, there has been a systemic and on going underfunding of research, technology and science. That needs to stop. Our percentage of G.D.P. spent on such research is at the lower end of the spectrum for O.E.C.D. nations.

Also, how the money that is available for research is spread too thinly and across too many fields. New Zealand is trying to dabble in everything instead of building up a few based on our strengths. Instead of putting small sums of money into a dozen or more fields, we need to be building up not more than say four or five main strands of research that get say 80% of all funding. If expenditure needs to increase on anything it is on Research Science and Technology. The 1.1% we spend on this is roughly half of what some nations at the top end of the investment spectrum are putting into this field. The word investment is used to signify an understanding that R.T.S. cannot grow without sustained financial input.

If New Zealand wants to be a country that moves its median income per hour from around $23/hr to $35-40/hr or more, then we need to start taking science and mathematics more seriously at school. I have described in prior posts an undeclared war on science that was started during the government of former Prime Minister Helen Clark, but waged by the National Government of Prime Minister John Key, where because science does not care for political agenda’s it was derided and distrusted.

What I have described above will grow the pie so that when future arguments happen about how to divvy up the tax pie, whilst there will be a cost to the coffers or to the taxpayer, it might not be the heavy blow that it would have been on a lower income.

It is not just investment in science that we can improve on. Too little is being done to improve the base range of export products we send to other nations. Farming, forestry, horticulture, mining, fishing and forestry are our major industries. With the exception of mining, all are at risk from biological organisms. One only needs to see the damage caused in Britain in 2001 when Mad Cow Disease forced the massive scale slaughter of millions of livestock, which crippled Britain’s dairy industry. Another risk is a full blown varroa bee mite outbreak, which would be disastrous for horticulture and potentially damaging to other industries as well given the reliance on bees for pollenation.

We have shown in many emerging fields that New Zealand has the know how to contribute. For example a company specializing in the extraction of rare elements from electronic waste called Mint potentially has a way of removing rare elements whose role in electrical components and gadgets would otherwise require substantial mining.

The knowledge and the means to do something useful with our economy that does not necessarily involve raising or lowering taxes is there. But are the politicians willing to put their personal and party agenda’s aside for New Zealand’s sake and come to the party?

The jury is out on that count.


An actual plan for dealing with climate change

The vision I have is a combination of reducing waste sources that are energy intensive or create significant carbon emissions, looking at environmentally sound alternative materials and applying some common sense law changes. I have opined and given these as examples in the past, but I have not tried to present an outline of how New Zealand might tackle the unsustainable manner in which we are living – until now. I write this to briefly examine some steps that New Zealand could be taking and the basis for those steps.

We use a wide range of minerals that appear on the Periodic Table of the Elements in manufacturing goods. Some are highly toxic and cannot be easily recycled or are being phased out. Others like aluminium however are growing considerably in both use and the amount being wasted. Aluminium stands out because it is hugely energy intensive to create one unit of it in a smelter – New Zealand’s Tiwai Point smelter for example has most of the output from Manapouri hydroelectric power station being directed to it. This is notable because recycling aluminium only requires a fraction of the power needed to manufacture a unit of it.

How much work would it take to re-establish a nation wide aluminium recycling programme at community level with drop off depots?

Many of the elements used in electronics and other everyday items are mined from countries that are quite politically unstable and have little regard for environmental law. As a result large tracts of forest are being wiped out with no rehabilitation, destroying vast tracts of the ecosystem and the habitats of flora and fauna. This destruction is releasing vast amounts of carbon based gas back into the atmosphere, whilst also affecting the native lands of indigenous peoples. Yet we wonder why there is conflict.

This is where e-waste recycling, known in the e-waste world as urban mining, has the potential to become very important. My research last year for Open Polytechnic of New Zealand found that 60 of the 118 elements of the Periodic Table were in use in electronic waste. 90,000 tons of e-waste is generated in New Zealand per annum, of which about 89,000 tons is not recycled. Yet the amount of copper, gold, silver and palladium that could be recovered is in commercial quantities and would go some way towards reducing the need for another ecology destroying mine – in New Zealand alone it is estimated that 600 kilogrammes of gold and 600 tons of copper could be recovered each year.

At the moment I am compiling responses from across New Zealand of city, district and regional councils to a set of questions I have e-mailed to them. When it is complete I will send the compiled document to the Minister for Environment to try to hasten a policy announcement on e-waste.

It is one of the most constructive materials ever conceived by man, but also one of the most damaging in terms of carbon based gas emissions. In 2015 about 4.20 billion tons of concrete was manufactured, compared with about 1.00 billion tons in 1960. Carbon dioxide emissions per annum from concrete manufacture make up about 8% of total emissions. New Zealand’s contribution is fairly minor (0.6 million tons of carbon dioxide, compared to about 702 million tons from China). Roughly half of the carbon dioxide emissions in the manufacture of concrete come from the chemical conversion of limestone to calcium oxide – emissions that will be impossible to avoid as long as we continue relying on calcinating limestone.

Hemp concrete is a material that has been tested by various researchers and has been found by the British Department of Business Innovation and Skills to actually store carbon. I am not sure what work has been done with hemp concrete in New Zealand, and it might not have a major impact on our overall carbon emissions, but here exists scope for New Zealand researchers to investigate further.

A few weeks ago I mentioned a suggestion that people will have to stop flying, in order to reduce the emissions caused by large scale consumption by airlines of aviation fuel. At the time I mentioned that an Air New Zealand study had been undertaken to see how planes could handle a biofuel blend. In 2009 a test flight was done. It was successful and the Boeing 747-400 aircraft used managed to complete all tests without a problem. In 2016, with no obvious attempt by the Government to establish a biofuel programme or support industry in doing so, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia decided to collaborate on a biofuel project, to examine whether or not biofuel can be produced locally, thereby lowering production costs whilst also creating jobs and reducing carbon emissions.

Biofuel is, as I have long suspected, been a potential alternative various fossil fuels. This now appears to include to the Jet-A1 fuel. The challenge will be finding out whether the jatropha seeds experiment of 2009 can be made successful or an alternative found.


The problems facing science

How many of you have been to a scientific lecture about research that has been done or done a course in science at school or at university? Did you get to throw little chunks of sodium into water and wait for the explosion, or dissect a mouse to see what its interior looked like? What about going on field trips to look at fault lines or volcanoes; fossil beds with trilobites and cephalopods and so forth?

Did it inspire you to find out more? Did it completely turn you off and make you wish you were doing a Bachelor of Arts instead of a Bachelor of Science?

I see recurring problems with how people receive science as a discipline. They range from teachers being frustrated at the restrictions on what and how they can impart it to their students; from people turning away from science degrees at Universities because they do not think it will justify itself in terms of their job prospects; members of the public – who might have never seriously engaged with any credible scientific papers, presentations or otherwise – criticizing scientists for altering predictions or theories. Among other issues.

But perhaps the worst is the fear that policy makers seem to have of it. Perhaps law makers do not realize they are giving off negative signals when they talk about it. Perhaps they are deliberately giving off bad vibes because the science on issues such as climate change goes against their beliefs. It is nevertheless shown in the lack of investment into research, science and technology with the percentage of our G.D.P. invested into it staying at about 1.0%, which is where it has been the last 20 years.

The range of issues where science has been controversial is diverse. Environmental science, technology, medicine, energy, natural hazards among others are just a few of the range that courts public controversy.

One example that has saddened me is the tendency of members of the public – not all, and possibly just a vocal few – who think that scientists are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives by doing things such as drilling into the Alpine Fault. The purpose of the drilling was to understand how geophysical conditions around the fault change with time. It sought to determine heat flow, the rate of underground movement of the fault and how the rock strata was deforming in response to the heat and pressure around it. The idea behind this is to build up a picture of stresses along the fault and hopefully eventually give an idea as to how long we have before it all comes unstuck at 20,000km/h.

It saddens me because this research is essential in a quake prone country like New Zealand where we are racing the fault to be as ready as we can for the eventual Alpine Fault rupture. This research is going to be the basis on which scientists make recommendations to policy makers who are then going to have to give legal effect to them. The moves around New Zealand to make the owners of buildings that are considered quake prone either bring them up to a building code standard where it will survive an earthquake and let the occupants out safely are for good reasons.

Definitely the most controversial is climate change. From out right denial by well known figures such as Donald Trump, to some believing that we only have a couple of decades left before the man made component becomes irreversible no matter what happens, science has its critics. There are energy companies believing for sake of profit margins and their corporate shareholders believing it is a hoax. And there is Greenpeace and other environmental organizations being certain that only a “carbon neutral” world can check the effects of human activity on the climate.

We will not fully know whether a 1°C or 2°C change in the planets temperature will have terminal consequences, major consequences or just mild consequences. Climate scientists have given compelling reasoning to believe it is the former. Yet by the same token the particles per million (P.P.M.) of carbon in the atmosphere have risen to 400+ for the first time in millions of years and the rate of increase suggests it is going to climb further yet. These changes will affect things such as ocean temperatures with flow on effects to marine life, those species that live of marine life and ultimately, humans.

But we will not know how or what unless we invest in the science. We will not know the impact on the ecosystem unless we invest in the science.

And the same goes for funding a credible cure for cancer. Unless we invest in the sciences and have a broad discussion about its purpose, its strengths and its weaknesses, we will not know what that cure is.

Political aversion to research, science and technology costing New Zealand

Sometime ago I wrote about a war on science being waged. I return to this subject inspired by the National Party’s commitment to dealing with climate change, an issue it and its A.C.T. Party ally have largely viewed – and at grass roots still do – as a socialist conspiracy based on what they call wonky science.

There seems to be a fear in some corners of science. Reading peoples comments underneath articles on Stuff, and on Facebook make me sad for the people who dedicate their professional careers to bettering our understanding of the world around us and designing new technology and research new ideas.

Whether it is a report on the work being done to understand the geophysical mechanics of the Alpine Fault in South Westland, the ignorance or lack of understanding displayed by many is disturbing. The spreading of untruths that a couple of drills boring into a fault system hundreds of kilometres long is going to somehow trigger a major earthquake is as alarming as it is wrong. The reasoning for the research is commendable: to find out how close the fault is to rupturing and whether any of the findings can be applied elsewhere.

Likewise there is a matching distrust or similar fear of technology. Perhaps it is the loss of privacy that goes with having just a few mega companies providing the bulk of our information technology – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Samsung, Apple all possess incredibly smart technological brains to have achieved in just under two decades the revolution from dumb phones to smart phones; from small localized networks such Old Friends to Facebook. The ability to post a vast range of multimedia – music, videos, blogs, photos among others

But we should not let this fear of technology necessarily cripple us. During the same time it has become possible that even if no overall cure is found for cancer, some forms of it such as bowel cancer might be significantly reduced in terms of their potency. Perhaps with investment in medical science we can make that happen in New Zealand.

Is it the failure of politicians to keep up with research, science and technology that makes them distrustful of it? Then we need to put pressure on them to get up to speed. The explosion of drones for example requires some urgent legislation changes to require registration of drones, and to make sure that they cannot be used in ways that pose undue threats to privacy, aircraft around airports or in flight paths. Before a major commercial aviation disaster occurs this needs to be tackled.

Is it that toxic old “She’ll be right” attitude that has long cost New Zealand, whereby people assume that on a given day everything will be fine and we worry too much? More cause for getting rid of it then. More cause for the change in public attitudes that inspired me to establish this blog in the first place.

Is the cause possibly a fear of politicians that they will somehow run out of work if they make an obvious effort to address our numerous outstanding social, economic and environmental problems? If that is the case this is simply laughable because being humans like the rest of us even if they do tackle these ills in an honest way and try to do the job they were elected to do, enough mistakes are certain that no shortage of work is ever likely to exist.

Or, is there a conspiracy of some sort to keep New Zealanders wages down by not investing in higher education, the sciences and the trades so that we exhaust ourselves by working too hard? I initially thought that this was a crack pot theory conceived by some believer of alternative politics, but the failure of two successive three-term Governments to achieve meaningful wage rises makes the cynic in me wonder. But whatever the answer may be – whether it is one or more of the above ideas or something completely different – it is costing New Zealand badly. We could be so much richer both in terms of income per capita, environmental and economic performance. I really really cannot help but wonder if there is not some deliberate agenda to make science look devious and discourage the idea of abstract research.