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This seems a rather outdated purpose for the Act.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.

The need to move against e-waste

Earlier yesterday, I was watching a documentary on Ghana’s electronic waste (e-waste) problem, which explored Abgogbloshie, an e-waste dump near the capital Accra.Situated on the banks of a river the dump takes tons of discarded computers, electronics, electrical parts and arrive there each year from Europe.

In a highly toxic environment, the burning of the plastic around the electronics exposes them to cancer causing dioxins that are released in the toxic smoke plumes. Fine particulate – not reported in the documentary – will most likely be falling down wind of the plume. And at ground level the cadmium, mercury, lead and other highly toxic substances from the crude dismantling of old and unwanted appliances will be accumulating in the ground where it has already reached levels 100x more than United Nations safety recommendations.

Thousands of kilometres away in New Zealand, we generate 90,000 tons of e-waste each year. Only about 1% of which – or about 900 tons – is actually recycled. The rest – computers, smart phones, printers, televisions, washing machines, microwaves among other items – is dumped at refuse stations, on the street and so forth.

I have opined about this before, but I am frustrated with the glacial action in Parliament to enact measures to deal with e-waste here. They could easily be including recycling programmes, product stewardship policies that result in a pathway from manufacture to end use, establishing places where the rare earth minerals can be removed from the devices and reused. The figures from New Zealand alone would support such moves – 600 tons of copper; 600 kilogrammes of gold; amounts of palladium, rhodium, silver and other minerals with economic value.

There are 118 elements in the current version of the Periodic Table of the Elements. 60 of them are used in some form or another of electrical components or electronic devices. Some like Niobium and Argon are not known to be toxic, but others like Cadmium and Tellerium are not only carcinogenic, but tetarogenic (causes defects in babies) as well. Given that the hazards of e-waste dumped in western nations as well, are often not well understood, it is difficult to imagine anyone in a poor country like Ghana wearing personal protection. This would include equipment such as gloves, boots, or taking measures such as washing their hands.

This is not sexy in the sense of getting public interest, but it is necessary, and when one thinks about how we source minerals a case for linking to climate change can actually be made. As with a lot of elements, many of the rare earth minerals come from mines in Africa, South America and Asia where environmental laws are lax and there is no requirement to remediate the land after mining. To create these mines vast tracts of potentially healthy forest are going to have to be wrecked and the flora and fauna in them displaced.

As with other forms of waste New Zealand needs to own its e-waste and deal with it. Expecting other countries to clean up our mess is simply not an option.


Escalating the war on waste in New Zealand

Just over a year ago I mentioned the decision by China to stop taking New Zealand waste, which was valued at over N.Z.$21 million per annum. It jolted people into realizing that we cannot and should not expect other nations to take our waste, or that we somehow have the right to shirk our responsibility to the environment. A year later, with an escalating push to remove single use plastics from our society, it is time to examine where else there has been progress made.

The drive to get single use plastics out of New Zealand stores is just a small part of what should be a much larger campaign. Much plastic waste such as the bags that components such as headphones, computer mouses and so forth come in, are plastic designs that simply get ripped open and are not usable again. Bubble wrap is another source, though if not torn it can be reused.

Cardboard and paper are major sources of waste, though perhaps one of the better known sources of recycling successes historically has been aluminium. When I was a child in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, there was an aluminium recycling programme. It simply relied on people collecting all of the aluminium they used and transporting it to a recycling drop off point, at which they were paid by the kilogramme. Unfortunately there was a collapse in the price of aluminium which made the programme uneconomic to continue. Having seen its success, this is one that I believe would be welcome to return. Aluminium production is hugely energy intensive and the New Zealand smelter at Tiwai Point requires 570 megawatts of electricity to operate.

From conversations I have had recently with Environment Canterbury (Canterbury Regional Council)and Christchurch City Council, there is a need for more Ministry for Environment leadership in terms of giving direction. Before that happens though, there needs to be an increase in internal resourcing at Ministry for Environment, whose website has a lot of information on it, but which in many cases has not been updated or reorganized for several years and is now dated. The reasons for saying this are because there was a distinct lack of direction on waste management under the previous Government, and during that time other countries noticed a decline in our performance as an environmentally responsible nation.

The conversations with ECan and Christchurch City Council revolved around electronic waste, which continues to be one of the lesser known, but rapidly growing waste sources. Earlier articles published here indicate the depth of the problem and some of the potential solutions. Both councils were in agreement that it is a major and growing problem. They had concerns though about how easily waste could be recycled given the costs of transporting and processing, how to dispose of the more toxic substances such as cadmium from the cadmium nickel batteries that are now found in a lot of devices.

There are some positive, albeit relatively small scale, projects happening such as the Queenstown Airport runway and apron resurfacing, which is using a composite mix of waste printer toner and recycled glass. Others include a tyre recycling project at Rolleston which will involve the construction of a plant that manufactures diesel from the roughly 1.5 million waste tyres around New Zealand. It would eventually become the processing centre for tyres from around the country.






Time to burn plastic?

The debate over whether to burn plastic in New Zealand has come to the surface again. The debate, whilst not new, comes back to light as the country tries to grapple with a plastic overload.

There are several potential reasons for doing so. It is a very cost effective way to dispose of waste and there are numerous instances of overseas countries, particularly in Scandinavia doing so. Another reason is that waste can be burnt to create energy, thereby potentially supplying heat to heat water as is done in Denmark or generate electricity.

In the first instance, no, I do not believe we should be burning plastic. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Plastics may release dioxins, which are potentially cancer causing into the atmosphere
  2. Plastics have recyclable uses such as being used as bitumen on roads, according to trials carried out in India
  3. Reducing the plastic in our lives should come down to the question of what purposes we really need it for and making all that we deem necessary to have recyclable

But just for a couple of minutes, let us suppose we did decide burning plastics was necessary. New Zealand has strong rules under the Resource Management Act 1991 around the discharge of pollutants into the atmosphere.

A couple of potential issues exist around what kind of incinerator could be used. The first one concerns the use of incinerators. There are only three high powered incinerators (those that can burn material at temperatures above 800°C in New Zealand and the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality (2004) forbids the construction of any more. Lower powered incinerators are known to exist, but would they be powerful enough to do the job?

The same N.E.S.A.Q. set limits on Ozone, Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide as these are significant contributors to air pollution. They have a range of potential health effects in large quantities.

The second concerns our international obligations including, but not limited to climate change. Would we be in breach of those obligations by having incinerators simply burning up plastic waste?

Various attempts to get such plans underway have been canned in the past. In one such case Olivine, , was attempting to recommission the mothballed Meremere coal fired power station as a waste to energy plant that among other waste, would have used plastics. That was in 2000.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is a combination of government policy, but also the fact that in the last few years the range of plastics that can be recycled in New Zealand has been significantly increased. When the recycling triangle scheme where a triangle with a number between 1-6 signifying its suitability for recycling first appeared on plastics, the range was quite poor with only Classes 1-2 being eligible – 3,4,5,6 had to wait. It has improved now – only to be replaced by a laissez faire attitude to recycling .

New Zealand needs to address these issues before it can make a decision on whether or not to burn plastic.


Building the case for a nation wide recycling programme

New Zealand has a significant waste problem. I have mentioned the e-waste component of the problem recently, but it is important to note the larger waste problem that e-waste is just a part of – albeit a substantial and toxic part. Nearly a year on from when China stopped taking New Zealand waste and caused alarm among the Green and environmental community, how are we getting on with building a case for a comprehensive waste recycling programme?

If we look at the statistics for recycling of various wastes we can see that there is significant completely avoidable wastage. For example an estimated 60,000 tons or about 27% of known glass bottles and jars ended up in landfills in 2015. If we add that to the percentages of plastic bottles and percentages of aluminium cans then it becomes obvious that New Zealand has a significantly problem with our disposal of recyclables and possibly an attitude problem as well.

New Zealand, according to the national Packaging Council uses about 735,000 tons of packaging each year, of which only about 58% is recycled. This means about 426,300 tons gets recycled per annum.

When I think about the types of plastics that get used, I can see immediately ways of reducing the waste without significant changes having to be made. For example rather than putting earphones in plastic packaging that rips and becomes useless immediately, why not put them in resealable bags? Why not use stronger paper bags for larger items such as speakers, remote controls and other accessories?

But also let us look at the dis/incentives that could be used such as a Pigouvian tax on demonstrably avoidable waste. Businesses do not like taxes and this would prove an effective incentive to look for ways to reduce unnecessary packaging. In contrast letting affected businesses keep any monetary or material gains made from being more effective, will provide a net positive boost.

Some of the types of waste build their own cases. Aluminium for example is very energy intensive to create. It uses about 5 tonnes of bauxite to get one 1 tonne of aluminium in return. Recycled aluminium on the other hand uses about 5% of that energy. It also has the advantage of being readily available in large quantities to recycle. One might recall the recycling programmes in the 1980’s where bins were set up in public places and in return for dropping kilogrammes of aluminium cans down to the drop off, one got dollars back in return.

The National Party preference that the market be left to decide whether this happens or not is in many ways a cop out. I believe it is basically an excuse not to create a comprehensive recycling framework that New Zealand communities are able to get behind and reduce the single biggest blight on our environmental reputation. That does not necessarily mean Labour are better, as Government of former Prime Minister Helen Clark had opportunities to create green jobs from this and failed to do so.

There are ways in which recycling could become a jobs creator in New Zealand. Reducing the aluminium that is wasted will significantly reduce the annual power bill in New Zealand by reducing the need for energy intensive production of new aluminium. Opportunities for sorting jobs, research into recycled products as well as marketing and so forth could all be created. We just need a somebody or an organization with the boldness to stand up and say so.