From ultrasound machines to barely used TV sets to the occasional ‘rude’ item, Patrick Moynahan’s business will dismantle and recycle it. Reweti Kohere meets the man at the coalface of our e-consumption.
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Patrick Moynahan already knows what the excuse will be when yet another fully functioning television set is dropped off at his e-waste recycling centre in Penrose, Auckland: “I don’t want it any more”. The tyranny of the TV screen is “unreal”, he tells me over Zoom. Demand for more in our consumer culture never ends.
“We have endless options to purchase new and improved technology all the time,” says Moynahan. “I guess it wasn’t a massive eye-opener or anything for me but people do consume a lot of technology, that’s for sure, and they want newer stuff, newer stuff, newer stuff.”
Computer Recycling’s 30-year-old managing director is an entrepreneur tackling Aucklanders’ e-waste every day and the world’s biggest mountains in his spare time. His business takes “anything with a plug” and repairs and resells or dismantles and recycles it, up to 2,000 tonnes a year. Our old-and-beaten-up or new-and-barely-used television sets, tablets, phones, computers, laptops, printers, whiteware, modems, batteries and home appliances become his daily fodder.
That includes ultrasound machines, fancy silverware sets and some “rude” items he prefers to exclude from the discussion. The oddest items are usually encountered when he and his team are sorting through transfer stations’ collection bins and their “spectrum of junk”.
In 2017, Moynahan purchased what he describes as a small computer junkyard and has transformed it into an e-waste recycling specialist. Employees have grown from an initial six to 25; throughput has quadrupled and is set to increase again once a “game-changing” processing machine is installed; and the business has been deemed a compliant, safe and environmentally responsible recycler.
A skeleton crew is working throughout the latest lockdown, including exporting hazardous waste materials and serving a few essential companies. Alert level four stopped people from dropping off their e-waste, but that’s resumed at level three, sans fees. “We’re just saying everyone can drop it off for free until we can go out and actually charge people and interact with people,” Moynahan says.
He estimates up to 80% of what Computer Recycling receives is diverted from landfills, simply by sorting, processing and recycling it. New Zealanders generate more than 80,000 tonnes of e-waste annually, so it’s worth sparing a thought for the environment before chucking that techie item in the bin. Printer cartridges, for example, take between 450 and 1,000 years to decompose. Lead, a highly toxic substance, makes up about a fifth of an old-school TV, yet almost all of the product (98%) is recyclable. Besides chemicals leaching out, landfills cause methane gas and other hyper accelerants of climate change to be released into the atmosphere in addition to the usual carbon dioxide emissions. What’s more, plenty of electronics are manufactured using finite commodities that are squandered if they’re not recovered and reused, resulting in more virgin materials being mined.
Moynahan admits watching a bit of TV as a kid growing up in Tāmaki Makaurau but the outdoors was more his thing. His love for business, however, wasn’t fostered by selling lemonade from a stand – he was too lazy, he says, more interested in “farting around, eating snacks”.
It wasn’t until he was in his early 20s that the marketing and advertising graduate took a shine to recovering materials, converting discarded waste and turning his operation into a commercially viable enterprise. He saw a gap in the underdeveloped domestic market to serve a very specific stream of waste where it remains perfectly legal for people to send e-waste to landfills – a practice other countries have banned.
So you’re a bit of a pioneer, I say. “Aw, kind of,” he replies, a grin on his face.
Climbing the world’s heights speaks to Moynahan’s love of a challenge. The late Sir Edmund Hillary’s memoir about conquering Mt Everest sparked his shift away from long-distance running and towards the mountains. After learning that the man who graces our $5 note climbed Aoraki Mount Cook at 21, Moynahan did a two-week technical mountaineering course in the South Island only to run out of money, return to Auckland for work and never actually follow in Sir Ed’s local footsteps.
Later, Moynahan instead decided to tackle the “seven summits”, a list popular among mountaineers of the highest peaks in each of the world’s seven continents. He’s since scaled Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro (“and a few other ones in Africa”), ascended Argentina’s Aconcagua, and while he couldn’t get to Russia’s Mt Elbrus, Mont Blanc was knocked off in lieu. After full-time work ensued, he planned to revisit the remaining summits later.
But later is increasingly looking like the distant future, if ever. Moynahan’s baby boy is due in December and he says he’s become less interested in the seven summits list considering how expensive and time-consuming – and how much of an ego-trip – conquering Mt Everest has become. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a big ego, but it’s a real box ticking exercise,” he says. There’s a mountain in Ecuador he’d love to tackle, “but again, it’ll be dependent on my wife as to where I go”.
Business excites him the way birds excite birdwatchers, he says. When he was younger Moynahan enjoyed learning how people became wealthy, successful, and influential. These days, getting rich isn’t overly important to him. He says learning how people suffered to reap the rewards is more interesting. So how has he suffered? “Well, as a middle class white male, not that much I guess,” he says, in on the joke. “It’s just self-imposed challenges, you know? Why aren’t I further ahead?”
He has seen results though from continually seeking improvements, and in the last five years, Computer Recycling has achieved turnover and profit milestones, grown staff numbers and acquired other businesses. Moynahan feels rich in a different way now, knowing all he’s learned from millionaires and mountaineers. Success breeds opportunity, which breeds curiosity, he says. “That’s probably more what I’m driven by as opposed to just making heaps of cash. I don’t want to be rich for the sake of being rich really.”
He pauses before ending with a smile. “Although maybe I do, I don’t know. That’d be quite relaxing.”