I asked some questions in the House on Thursday of the Minister for Environment, about how well (or more to the point how badly) we are meeting our obligations under the Basel Convention in regard to lead acid batteries.
The Convention came into force in the early ‘90s as a response to the then emerging trend of developed ‘rich’ countries exporting their hazardous and toxic waste to developing, ‘poor’ countries. A key principle of the Convention is that we should all take care of our own waste, and either deal with it domestically or export it to a receiving country better able to deal with the material in a way that does not cause harm to the environment or to human health.
Turns out we have exported close to 100,000 tonnes of used lead acid batteries (the kind you have in your car) to Korea or the Philippines over the last three and a half years, despite being able and therefore legally — and ethically — obliged to deal with recycling them locally.
There is clear evidence that the Ministry of Economic Development has been remiss in allowing for exports of this material.
It appears that the approach of MED to assessment of the export applications is lackadaisical at best — the worst kind of ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. The complete application process was a one pager and the investigation of the recycling plant consisted of a handwritten note which says “fine by me” [picture to the right and pdf here].
Not only that, but one of the applications has a handwritten note from an official which states “we’re not fulfilling our obligations under the Basel Convention” [PDF].
We are now exporting so much that the viability of our local facility is under threat. If we lose the capacity to recycle locally, we are not only in breach of the convention but are creating a major problem for ourselves if for whatever reason the receiving countries ever cry ‘enough’.
We have a high-level vision of a waste free New Zealand and that is what should be working towards. To do this we need the ability to recycle hazardous materials safely — environmentally, for workers, public health-wise, and with community input — in New Zealand. By losing the capacity to recycle we’re not only not fulfilling our obligation but we’re losing capacity to deal with our own waste.
Exide’s existing facility at Petone has a chequered history. We in no way condone the leaching of highly toxic materials into our rivers, soils, and communities. But, with the right regulation, standards and suitable placement of processing facilities, we retain capacity in New Zealand and the jobs of the workers.
We will be watching very closely the progress of the review that the Minister has promised, and will be looking for an outcome that involves us taking responsibility for our own problem and coming up with an enduring solution.