Batteries and the Basel Convention

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.

7 Comments Posted

  1. Further to photonz1’s comments, There is a thorough and comprehensive report tabled in the house on the visit of an MED official to the Philippine plant concluding that it matches, and in some cases exceeds the standards of Exide. And who are we to tell the Philippines that they should be stuck in the stone age?

    Also, Korea is hardly a land of “local villages”. Its an industrial power with recycling technology far in advance of our own, and with much newer, cleaner battery smelters. It’s a bit condescending to the Koreans (who enjoy a higher standard of living than us Kiwis) to suggest that they’re a bunch of villagers who don’t know what to do with a valuable resource like a used lead acid battery.

    If the government moves to protect the Exide plant by prohibiting exports, it will create a monopoly situation and it will not be economically viable for battery collectors to do their work and more batteries will be dumped in landfills.

    As long as the same rigorous standards are used for overseas plants than our own, then NZ complies with the Basel Convention fully.

    I’m afraid Hon Clendon’s concerns, while admirable on some level, are a little misplaced.

  2. Rick says “The overseas plants (at least the Philippines ones) have an appalling environmental record, as revealed by Greenpeace in 1996 and again in 2003 and again in 2011.”

    Are you talking about same plant recently inspected by NZ officials ?

    Rick says “This is not about Exide. This is about our international obligations not to crap on our neighbors and our need to protect our clean green image.”

    Or more likely it’s about scoring political points.

    Except that backfires when you lose sight of what’s best for the environment and end up lobbying for a company with an appalling environmental record

    The Greens are even using the same brief handwritten note the company were lobbying with – “looks fine to me” – while disregarding the detailed official report on the Philippines plant.

    Looks to me like you’ve been tricked into lobbying for the Exide plant that Petone residents want closed.

  3. You are missing the point photonz1. The overseas plants (at least the Philippines ones) have an appalling environmental record, as revealed by Greenpeace in 1996 and again in 2003 and again in 2011. Exide sucks, particularly being in the middle of a residential area, no doubt. But it is still better than the Philippino option, where lead levels in the river are 33 times the level above the ‘recycling’ plant. (2003 report)

    We’re exporting our toxic waste into a country that cannot cope with it to save a couple of bucks – in violation of a treaty we have signed and ratified and incorporated into law.

    This is not about Exide. This is about our international obligations not to crap on our neighbors and our need to protect our clean green image.

    I thought you believed in individual responsibility photnonz1? Or only if it’s convenient?

  4. frog – so you want batteries to be recycled in a NZ plant with an appalling environmental record, that locals want closed down, instead of modern overseas plants, then say “However, to claim that we’re lobbying on their behalf is ridiculous.”

    That’s exactly what you are doing, whether or not it’s pre-arranged.

    “international obligations” seem a nonsense if –

    – the NZ factory has an appalling environmental record
    – the locals all want it closed
    – it pays less for old batteries


    – the overseas battery recycling plants have better environmental reputations than ours
    – they pay more for old batteries, leading to more batteries being recycled, and fewer being dumped and discarded in NZ

    Surely the top priority is what’s best for the environment (rather than conforming to an agreement that will likely have the opposite effect, or merely political point scoring)

  5. Photonz1: It is true that Exide has employed Mai Chen to represent them. However, to claim that we’re lobbying on their behalf is ridiculous.

    Dave has been very clear with his condemnation of Exide’s past actions. We do not support their reckless actions. But we need to have the capacity to recycle batteries here in New Zealand because of our international obligations, our ethical obligations and also because it just makes more sense to take care of our own problems.

    Trevor is likely prevaricating because according to a Greenpeace study in 2003, the former Labour Government was complicit with shipping our waste to places like the Phillipines which have incredibly lax rules about the recycling and disposal of such waste.

  6. Trevor Mallard seems to think that it’s better to dump our waste in third-world villages, rather than upgrade local plants to a safe standard.

  7. How do you reply to Trevor Mallards accusation that the Petone Exide factory (with an appalling environmental history) has employed a legal firm to get the Greens to lobby on their behalf?

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