Disposing responsibly of unwanted goods and rubbish takes time, effort and often money. Is it worth it?
During the first big lockdown of 2020, doomed to stare at our own four walls, our household did what many others did: we had a massive clear-out. We tackled cupboards, wardrobes, kids’ bedrooms, the garage and the garden shed, amassing ruthless piles of outgrown or discarded clothes, toys, sports gear and kitchenware – and a guilty stock of end-of-life items we had no idea what to do with.
The “rehoming” bit was easy. Clothes in good condition, good-quality homewares, undamaged books and toys are all are welcomed by charity shops. It’s the broken things, the defunct appliances, the worn-out shoes and holey t-shirts and tatty old school bags – the stuff you know for sure no one wants – that pose the challenge.
For me, it’s long been a point of honour to throw as little as possible away, at least in the sense of sending it to landfill. I’m a diligent rinser and recycler, a dutiful composter, a hoarder of e-waste until such time as I can find something responsible to do with it. I collect soft plastics and cram them into the collection bin outside my supermarket or health food shop if there’s any room left. I save rags: some charities used to take them, and years ago there was a place in Auckland that used them for mattress fillings.
This time, as well as bags of worn-out clothes, I had several years’ worth of old lightbulbs and batteries, which I couldn’t bring myself to put in the red-top bin. Surely, I thought, if I kept them long enough, some local disposal programme would catch up with me? (Living in London in 2016, we used to drop our old batteries into the collection bin at the library.) I had a box full of e-waste – defunct earbuds and phone chargers, cables, plugs, a dead mouse and keyboard or two, a couple of phones, and a few toner cartridges which my previous go-to for recycling, Inkworks, was no longer taking. I also had a bunch of dead appliances: a toaster, a jug, an electric toothbrush, a power drill, a couple of clocks and a few electronic toys, some of which, like the remote-control helicopter, might be resurrectable with a dab of solder. Weirdly, there was an ersatz old-style dial telephone with a USB plug (!), an environmentally-oblivious marketing gimmick from somewhere.
I cracked my knuckles and got Googling. E-waste was relatively easy: there are quite a few places that take it, though not necessarily local, and usually at a cost of a few dollars per item. Other kinds of rubbish required more online digging. Some of the outfits working at the coal face of repurposing or recycling don’t have well indexed or optimised websites. Some programmes are aimed at commercial operations and only take items in bulk. Some run for a while and fizzle out as they prove unviable, so the information online isn’t always current.
Eventually I found some gems, like Appliances Recycling in Onehunga, a heroic outfit that takes e-waste for free, accepts almost any old electrical goods, from electric toothbrushes to whiteware, and offers a cheap repair service for anything that looks fixable. I found community recycling centre EcoMatters in West Auckland which, along with lightbulbs and batteries, takes toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes and disposable razors, a few of which I had stockpiled from before I switched to a steel safety razor.
When I set out to write this piece, I planned to share all the brilliant tips I dug up – the place in Māngere that took rags and shoes! The recycling programme for pens! But when I repeated many of those searches recently, some of the initiatives I took advantage of last year had stopped or paused due to rising costs, global shipping issues or overwhelm. Much of the recycling capacity out there depends on small-enterprise passion, volunteer goodwill and fickle corporate patronage. This week I discovered that Bic has withdrawn its sponsorship of its stationery recycling programme, so I can’t, after all, tell you to save and recycle your writing implements. Kiwi Cleaning Rags is currently full, and anyway can no longer afford to sort and dispose of leftover and unsuitable textiles.
Most of the genuine recycling of things like non-cotton textiles, aluminium-lined plastic packaging and various hard plastics takes place offshore, and it’s barely viable for New Zealand organisations to stockpile and ship volumes of waste in normal times, let alone in a pandemic. There’s a reason every chirpy “Do your bit!” exhortation to individual action begins with “Reduce”: this stuff is hard. That said, some of my findings are shared below – non-exhaustive, Auckland-centric and liable to change at any time.
After the first lockdown lifted last year, I spent a few hours one weekday – many places are open short or limited days – driving around Auckland offloading our discards. I dropped boxes at two Red Cross shops (the first one stopped me after the fifth or sixth box, and asked me to please take the rest elsewhere). I offloaded appliances, e-waste and rags, driving from Grey Lynn to Eden Terrace to Sandringham to Onehunga to Māngere to Mt Wellington and back. I covered probably 50 kilometres, burning maybe $20 in gas, in an old and increasingly fumy car, which we’re trying to drive into the ground because, from a manufacture and end-of-life disposal point of view, we figure that’s still better than buying a new one. What my carbon footprint might have been, and how it might it stack up against my landfill savings, is one of the unfathomable trade-offs that environmental economists argue about, and make the heads of the best-intentioned eco-citizens explode.
The following weekend I drove to EcoMatters in New Lynn, where I counted out my lightbulbs and had my batteries weighed. They charge between $3 and $5.50 per kilo to take batteries, depending on the type, and per item for lightbulbs: $1 for standard incandescent or LEDs, $3 for the curly CFL ones. I think I paid around $35 to offload my stash.
Of the things I took to Red Cross, I spent hours mending and cleaning first. I sewed up split seams, replaced buttons, darned small holes, treated and soaked out stains. I scrubbed shoes and got busy with the methylated spirits, cleaning the Vivid graffiti off otherwise perfectly nice Smiggle pencil cases, and chewing gum out of kids’ jeans. I counted jigsaw puzzle pieces, playing cards and games pieces, and bagged and labelled collections of small toys like marbles, plastic dinosaurs and collectibles. I checked Nerf bullets for damage and tested them in the guns. (It wasn’t all dull.)
Keeping material out of landfill takes time, effort and often money, either ours or someone else’s. It’s tempting to “wish-cycle” – to shove something into a collection bin or donation box in the hope that someone somewhere will know what to do with it. In effect, this just dumps our disposal problem onto someone else.
As a freelancer, I could put a price on the unbillable hours I spent. (It’s harder to gauge the opportunity cost of time not spent on the two books I’m supposed to be writing.) But I can also choose to think of it as volunteer work, an in-kind contribution to the non-profits I most appreciate, taking pressure off their unpaid workers and maximising the dollar amount they can get for goods. It’s a mark of respect to the unseen volunteers and ultimately their customers, many of whom shop second-hand out of need. At the risk of sounding unbearably pious, it’s a way to pay a little of my privilege forward.
Taking into account petrol, water, detergent and solvents, I can’t be sure whether the planet benefitted on balance from the few cubic metres I diverted from landfill. Disposing correctly of e-waste has to be a good thing, and with the help of some dedicated businesses and optimistic volunteers, I’ve maximised the chances of base materials like scrap metal and hard plastic being reclaimed.
In trying to decide whether my personal outlay was “worth it”, I came to realise I was asking the wrong question. Why, after all, should it be free to dispose of the things we’ve used? We need to get used to pricing end-of-life disposal into our consumption. If you’re prepared to truly pay your way, there are some great paid options, like pre-paid Zero Waste Boxes from Terracycle, or to-your-door service Junk Run, who divert 70% of everything they pick up away from landfill (more details below).
And yes, it’s outrageous that the onus still falls on the consumer. We can and should keep agitating for companies and manufacturers to take responsibility for the full life cycle of their products, even though this, too, will ultimately mean prices rises to consumers. We can be patient as more recycling programmes come on board, as the sustainability sector continues to innovate and corporates yield to customer pressure. And in the meantime, I’ll keep saving my rags and pens, just in case.
A non-comprehensive, Auckland-centric list of recycling options
Clothing, homewares and toys in good or very good condition
I opt to support non-denominational organisations working with homelessness, hunger and vulnerable families. Call ahead to check what each place is taking right now. It might seem like a pain – you’re on a decluttering roll! – but sometimes the most helpful thing is to hold onto stuff a bit longer until their volunteers can accommodate it.
Women’s corporate and workplace wear – lots of drop-off points, including at many drycleaners, nationwide.
Appliances, e-waste and toner cartridges
Most places charge, either per item or by weight for small items.
- Appliance Recycling Centre – 119 Captain Springs Road, Onehunga, will take most electrical goods from small appliances to whiteware. Free to drop most e-waste. Also offers an appliance repair service. Currently not taking TVs or monitors.
- Upcycle – 321 Neilson Street, Onehunga. Takes appliances, e-waste, construction waste, VHS cassettes, lightbulbs, scrap metal, toner cartridges.
- Warehouse Stationery stores – toner cartridges and drums can be dropped off in-store.
Very little textile recycling happens in New Zealand at present. There are rumours of some charities still taking 100% cotton fabrics, which get repurposed locally as painting or cleaning rags, but I can’t find anyone definitely taking them right now. That said, some options:
- H&M Stores – Stores take any fabric in any condition as part of a worldwide textile recycling programme.
- SPCA – They welcome old blankets, towels, sheets, duvet covers (not duvet inners, pillows or pillowcases).
- Terracycle Zero Waste Box – A range of (not cheap) pre-paid box options, taking a comprehensive range of textiles, including masks and other PPE. This is the only place I can find right now that takes shoes. (More about Zero Waste Boxes below.)
Community recycling centres
Places set up to take more than your normal kerbside recycling items can be hard to find. Check your local council website, or try searching “community recycling centre” in your area. Try searching by specific items, too – just be aware info online isn’t always up to date.
EcoMatters – Unit E, 489 Rosebank Road, Avondale, and 1 Olympic Place, New Lynn. Check days and times: they have relatively narrow opening hours across two locations.
- Toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, floss containers, plastic bubble packaging
- Curtains (clean, not mouldy, no poles or blinds)
- Disposable razors and blades
- Inflatable pool toys
- Light bulbs
Sustainability Trust – 2 Forresters Lane, Wellington
- Child car seats
- Small scrap metal
- Toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, floss containers, plastic bubble packaging
Auckland Council inorganic rubbish collection
Auckland Council still provides one free collection a year per property, at fixed times of the year – you need to keep an eye on schedules, and book ahead. Bookings for mainland Auckland will open again in January 2022, for collections probably in the autumn. The official focus of this service is now on diverting waste from landfill.
Free waste streams by post
Global recycling company Terracycle offers a number of free local waste “brigades”, financed by corporate partnerships. You collect items in your nominated stream, box them up and send it back free. Most notably:
- Vape products: Alt and Vapo devices, refill bottles and pods
- Coffee capsules: separate programmes for Nescafe [ ] and a bunch of others.
- Soft plastic food storage: including cling film and ziplock bags
- Hair and beauty product packaging, including aerosols and pump bottles.
- Razors, blades and associated plastic packaging
Paying your way
Zero Waste Boxes
If you’re prepared to spend, Zero Waste Boxes from Terracycle are a super-convenient option. They send you a pre-paid box which you fill and send back (shipping included) via post or courier. Prices start at around $200 depending on what you’re going to fill it with. A small All-In-One box is $298 and buys you around 28 litres in which to get rid of just about anything, including the difficult things like textiles, shoes, e-waste, hard plastics and the kind of packaging you can’t put in your domestic recycling. Notable inclusions: disposable masks and other PPE, lanyards, plastic swipe cards, disposable coffee cups and those enraging mini-hangers that underwear is still sold with.
There are a few services that send round a truck, haul away everything you’ve got and sort it into different waste streams for you. Junk Run seems to have the best environmental credentials and pride themselves on diverting 70% of what they collect away from landfill to reuse, repurposing and genuine recycling. Pricing is by volume, with a minimum of three cubic metres costing $255 + GST and $85 + GST for each additional cubic metre. (Some types of waste might cost extra.)
Paint and paint tins
Resene’s PaintWise programme donates usable paint to community groups and disposes responsibly of the rest. They take any brand of paint, stain, stripper solvent, polyurethane, turps, as long as the label is legible.
Take tablets, capsules, syrups and medicated creams to any pharmacy for safe disposal. Sealed or unopened medications within their expiry date might be able to be redistributed to areas in need. Ask your pharmacy to support Christchurch-based Medical Aid Abroad if they can.
Random mending tip: jandals
We had couple of pairs of broken jandals, and Havaianas don’t sell replacement straps any more. Subs, the Kiwi outfit making jandals from reclaimed ocean plastic, sold me a replacement set of straps for $9 including shipping.