Good, bad, and ugly: Exide to close

I feel quite conflicted about the announcement that Exide will close its controversial battery recycling facility in Petone next month because the Government is exporting lead batteries overseas and depriving them of business.

On the one hand, the plant has a shocking history of resource consent breaches, dangerous waste disposal, and toxic pollution. It’s located in a residential area, most of which is social housing, meaning the residents had very little choice about moving in next door to a lead emitting factory. A local stream where many children play (but probably shouldn’t) runs right behind it, and joins the Hutt River right near the mouth where others fish for kai from the Waione Street overbridge. The existence of the factory so close to residential homes should never have been allowed – it’s a strange anachronism that it was.

So in many ways Exide’s closure is good news, not least for the vege garden at my place, just two streets away.

But Exide’s closure will also mark the loss of New Zealand’s capacity to recycle lead batteries on shore. This is no small thing: if our vision of a waste-free Aotearoa is ever to be realised, we must retain the ability to deal with our own waste. Shipping it overseas – in contravention of our international obligations under the Basel Convention – for someone else to deal with is not a viable solution. Information about the plants the batteries are sent to, in places like Korea, is scarce, and there is a good chance we are simply polluting someone else’s backyard.

There is a very real chance that once we lose this capacity to recycle lead batteries in New Zealand, we will never get it back.

Last year, I submitted on Exide’s application to renew its resource consent, suggesting that it should be allowed to continue to operate for a shorter period, conditional on the plant either meeting international best practice standards, or relocating to a non-residential area like Seaview. A pre-hearing meeting between Exide and submitters was due to be held next week – I guess this won’t take place now, but it would have been good to hear whether the plant’s managers were open to addressing these conditions.

Once Exide closes, there seems to be one other option for retaining battery recycling capacity in New Zealand. Last year a company called ChemPro Logistics signalled its intention to establish a lead battery recycling facility not far away in Seaview. This proposal is looking increasingly attractive – they say they would use state of the art equipment and meet international best practice standards; they are already in an industrial zone, and there would be potential for some of Exide’s 40 sacked workers to be re-employed.

However I have no idea how realistic these plans are. When I met with ChemPro and toured their facility during the election campaign last year, they told me their plans – like Exide – relied on the Government stopping exporting batteries overseas. An unsuccessful court challenge last year seems to have dashed these hopes.

By ignoring our international obligations and sending our toxic waste overseas, the Government is probably kissing goodbye New Zealand’s capacity to recycle our own lead batteries. Whatever you think of Exide, this is a decision we may well live to regret.

P.S There will be significant clean up concerns associated with Exide’s closure. It would be great if, once closed, Exide is added to the list of Toxic Sites Catherine Delahunty has negotiated with Environment Minister Nick Smith.

7 Comments Posted

  1. Great post. I studied Exide as part of a University paper in 2009/10. The company had employed a well qualified health and safety manager and had invested a lot in upgrading the plant in recent years. At that stage Exide was providing performance information to the local community and lead emissions to air at the boundary were well within international standards. The slag was being treated by an internationally recognised process that binds heavy metals chemically. It’s debatable whether the batteries when exported will be handled as well. I understand though that this was not always the case.

    The main reason that I find the news depressing (and it is a big fail for all parties) is the implication I’ve drawn that NZ government and NZ based companies has not been able to run and regulate a potentially dirty and health impacting business effectively to take account of all the public, private, commercial and national interests in having this done well and safely. Exide’s operation in NZ has had benefits for all NZ people whether as vehicle owners, transport operators and vendors, garages or passengers as well as for Exide. These include – national self sufficiency in lead and lead batteries, lead batteries not ending up in landfills except to a very limited extent and not having to contravene the convention as mentioned above.

    It seemed to me that the collection and storage of lead batteries, which I recall was undertaken at Exide’s cost would have been an ideal opportunity for some kind of financial instrument that would have seem the batteries collected and stored safely as part of a public good initiative that could have helped fund additional safeguards or a relocation of the plant for the re-manufacture of the batteries.

    Roll on some real initiatives under the Waste Minimisation Act.

  2. Hi Holly, yes that’s a bit of fuel for thought, pardon the pun. Of course, with lead being so toxic it would be very difficult to handle it 100% safely, even under the best of conditions. That’s why we use Lithium-Iron based compounds in our EV’s (and the fact that LiFePO4 batteries have a much higher energy density than dirty lead-acid batteries). Lithium and iron are found on 100% of the earth’s crust, even in the water that covers 75% of the planet. Lithium is more expensive than lead, and very sought after for recycling, so I’m asking myself why there isn’t a company recycling lithium. Of course, the share of lithium that EV’s use is miniscule, compared to all the other uses of lithium because there are so few EV’s on the road globally. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been verbally accosted by grossly misinformed people, reciting their “hate EV’s” mantra that my EV’s are poisoning the planet, when the lion’s share of lithium is mostly used by people with mobile phones, laptop computers, cordless drills and billions of other objects that use lithium batteries. Matter of fact, some people with medical conditions sometimes take lithium as a therapy. The amount of lithium used in a typical EV will fit in a cosmetic sized suitcase, but EV’s are fairly rare, with fewer than 50 in New Zealand. So the apportioning of alleged environmental damage weighs very little in the direction of the EV, and more towards all those billions of portable little lithium power cells found in every industry and facet of life as we live it today. Sorry to get a bit off-topic, but I thought it was an important point to bring out in the overall battery topic.

  3. @photonz1 also the problem is we must be sure that the exported materials are actually being recycled, and in a way that is not damaging to someone else’s back yard.

  4. photonz1

    I think the point that Holly is trying to make is that this is an opportunity lost (in terms of facilities and jobs) that may cost us significantly in the future by not addressing this capacity in NZ.

    Agree though that we are not as such, sending waste overseas as you rightly point out.

  5. Good post, Holly. I often think when our waste has value overseas, shouldn’t we profit by managing it ourselves? The Government withdrew support for e-waste collection and Invercargill is stockpiling class because they can’t find someone to take it. I bet this government has no national plan for waste management or have set aside funding for investigating possibilities.

  6. I thought claims that we are breaching the Basil Convention were proved to be wrong becuase it bans exporting waste to be disposed of, but doesn’t ban recycling (which is surely a good thing – just like we export our waste steel for recycling).

  7. Great post, Holly. The Petone area potentially has many more sites dumping or emitting nasty stuff really close to where people live, raise their children and grow food to eat. I think it’s about time the Lower Hutt City Council clarified the zoning for Petone. Industrial activities should be transitioned to Seaview on a sinking lid basis. Petone is a fantastic residential area close to public transport, supermarkets, cafes, the river, the harbour and shops. It should be utilised for its potential – for people, not industry. It’s a jewel in the crown of Wellington and its future is as a wonderful place for people to live and conduct environmentally friendly business.

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