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14 June 2022

Broken appliances: are they repaired or dumped?

We use GPS trackers to follow a dead fridge and faulty food mixers, to find out what retailers and manufacturers do with them.

We used GPS trackers to follow a dead fridge and faulty food mixers to find out what retailers and manufacturers do with them.

Operation Icebox

Jon’s fridge stopped keeping his food cold. The technician diagnosed a serious fault – a failed compressor. Jon and Fisher & Paykel agreed that a five-year-old fridge shouldn’t fail catastrophically. It was too costly to repair, so F&P would deliver a new one and take the broken one away. Jon trusted that his old fridge would be recycled responsibly. We wanted to see how that happens.

Project Mixer

If you’ve ever looked to repair a small kitchen appliance, you’ll know how frustrating it is – repair advice is non-existent and spare parts few and far between. So, we wondered what retailers did with nearly new, but faulty, small appliances. If they are repaired, it’s not obvious where they are resold. If they aren’t repaired, where do they end up? We tracked benchtop food mixers: we could create a convincing and easy-to-repair fault (“it’s brand new and it just won’t turn on”) and they’re large enough to hide our trackers.

Test manager Paul Smith with one of the 'faulty' mixers.
Test manager Paul Smith with one of the 'faulty' mixers.

Follow us, following the appliances

We set out not knowing where our investigation would lead. Tom (our podcast producer) hoped for the worst – revelations shocking enough to send a couple of episodes of Consume This! to the top of the podcast charts. I hoped for better – confirmation of my wishful thinking that everyone tries hard to do the right thing, and an insight into an unseen world of appliance recycling, repair and refurbishment.

By now you’ve probably heard the podcast and know what we uncovered. If not, I recommend you listen before reading.

Here’s how the story unfolded.

3 February (Thursday). Operation Icebox kicks off. I fit a tracker inside an air vent in Jon’s broken fridge. We put a label on the tracker with Tom’s phone number, a smiley face and a message to “Call me!”

10 February (Thursday). The fridge moves! After a week of constantly checking the tracking app and seeing nothing but a static red dot, the fridge gets picked up from Jon’s garage and travels to Porirua, where it stays overnight.

11 February (Friday). The fridge moves again, from Porirua to Seaview. Tom’s Google investigation locates it at MGI Ltd “whiteware installers”. Google doesn’t have much intel about them.

14 February (Monday). Jon, Tom and I go undercover (sort of). We make a casual walk-by of MGI. Jon wears a tiny lapel mic. I’m carrying a microphone the size of a double-scoop ice cream, connected to Tom by a very long cable. There are several old fellas outside, busy stripping old ovens into the back of an old ute. Amazingly, they’re too busy to notice our not-so-spy gear. We spot Jon’s fridge in the warehouse alongside many other old fridges, washing machines and ovens.

Operation Icebox goes on hold. The tracker doesn’t move for eight weeks. I ride by the location a couple of times to confirm the fridge has remained exactly where it was on 14 February.

17 February (Thursday). Project Mixer begins. I buy $80 bench mixers from Kmart and The Warehouse. I break them both (removing a power wire from the control board) and tape the trackers inside.

21 February (Monday). I buy a Breville ‘The Scraper Beater’ bench mixer from Briscoes. Being a midweek purchase, I pay full price: $450. No doubt it’ll be on sale at the weekend.

21 February (Monday). The “faulty” Kmart and Warehouse mixers are returned. Tom and I go in all mic’d up. We get refunds for both mixers. Neither store even bothers to open the box to confirm there’s a mixer inside. Our eyes pop wide open as the Kmart assistant breezily tells us they “just throw faulty stuff in the bin”. Tom and I scout behind the stores to locate their bins. By the end of the day, both trackers move outside to the bin areas. Surely not?

22 February (Tuesday). Our Kmart mixer makes a tiki-tour of the Seaview industrial area, most likely in the back of a rubbish truck. It stops at an art school in Lower Hutt. I’m naively hopeful it is getting repurposed into a student’s ‘appliance waste’ sculpture project.

23 February (Wednesday). The Warehouse mixer starts a tiki-tour that looks all too familiar – a stop or two in Seaview, then a ride north. But it bypasses the art school to finish its trip in the Silverstream landfill.

24 February (Thursday). Tom visits the art school and reports it’s unlikely they have any appliance art projects on the go. His investigation suggests we lost the tracker signal next to their bins. We surmise that it has been crushed in the rubbish truck, most likely on its way to Silverstream landfill. My hopes have been crushed too.

10 March (Thursday). I break the Breville, happy that I’ve found a brilliant secret location for the tracker that means it is unlikely to be found even if the mixer is repaired. Also, I've learned from our Kmart experience and leave the tracker safely enclosed in its crush-proof, IP67-rated case.

10 March (Thursday). I deliver the faulty Breville to Briscoes. I think I’ve been rumbled when the assistant tells me a Breville rep will take a look, and “don’t worry, it won’t just get thrown in the landfill”. I leave with a refund.

10 March (Thursday). With the Kmart tracker dead, we try again. This time, I buy a mixer from the Porirua Kmart store – on the off-chance the Petone staff recognise me and question my serial mixer-buying-and-returning behaviour.

10 March (Thursday). Tom organises a visit to Spicer landfill in Porirua and lines up a chat with the manager and the Porirua City Council head honcho of waste, for Tuesday 22 March. Spicer landfill is likely to be the final destination of our second Kmart mixer. Wouldn’t it be magical if we were there to see our mixer tumble from a rubbish truck?

17 March (Thursday). Kmart mixer v2 is broken and returned. As expected, the box doesn’t even get opened, and I have yet another refund. My store reconnaissance turns up a set of Waste Management bins ready and waiting for it. Hopefully this one takes a little longer than the first to get to the dump. Can’t believe I’m hoping the mixer gets dumped.

18 March (Friday). As expected, Kmart v2 moves towards the bins, then starts its journey around Porirua. By 1.30pm it’s in Spicer landfill. Kmart doesn’t hang around clearing out junk.

22 March (Tuesday). We visit Spicer landfill. The manager shows us where we lost the tracker signal for Kmart mixer v2 and suggests that, three days later, it’s buried under 5-10 metres of waste. He explains the trouble they take to separate domestic recycling and appliances from waste. Then we watch several private waste company trucks bypass that process to dump everything, including a fridge, straight into the waste pile. Apparently, paying the landfill fee gives these companies (such as Waste Management) free rein to dump anything and everything. That’s what happened to our mixer and whatever else was collected from the Kmart bins. My naive hope turns to disappointment tinged with anger. Looks like Tom has his podcast material.

Head honcho of waste at Spicer landfill talks about what happens to appliances that end up at the dump.
Head honcho of waste at Spicer landfill talks about what happens to appliances that end up at the dump.

1 April (Friday). After four weeks of occasionally moving around inside the Briscoes store in Petone, our mixer finally gets out, travelling to Seaview. I’ve seen this before and expect the final ping will be at Silverstream landfill. But then the mixer stops moving for the day. Google investigations and a weekend ride-by show it’s at a New Zealand Couriers depot. Perhaps our $450 mixer isn’t going to the Silverstream dump. I daren’t raise my hopes too much.

4 April (Monday). The Breville mixer heads north to Auckland. It ends up at Appliance Outlet – a reseller of end-of-line, used and refurbished appliances. I’m excited to see it there. It’s a perfect candidate to be repaired and resold … it only needs one wire to be clipped back into place.

Project Breville Mixer goes on hold. After arriving at Appliance Outlet, it moves once, briefly, inside the store on Monday 11 April. Over the next eight weeks it remains stationary, though we still get a ‘heartbeat’ from the tracker.

16 April (Saturday). We’ve seen our broken budget mixers go straight to the dump. But the mid-range one is potentially going to be repaired. What would happen to a mixer from a brand with a reputation for durability? I buy a $740 Kenwood Chef from Farmers (though because it was a weekend, I pay $520).

17 April (Sunday). The Kenwood breaks itself, the second time it’s used. Oh, the irony! It still works, it just starts sounding “like agricultural machinery” (according to my wife).

23 April (Saturday). I take the Kenwood back to Farmers. They not only unbox the mixer, but turn it on to listen to the fault. I’m not sure whether I’m happy they bother to check or annoyed they don’t trust me. I panic a little as they unbox it, as the tracker is hidden in the packaging, not inside the mixer. They confirm it sounds like a tractor, and don’t find the tracker. I leave with a replacement mixer.

The Kenwood mixer is returned to farmers.
The Kenwood mixer is returned to farmers.

Project Kenwood Mixer goes on hold. Over the next month, it moves around inside the Farmers store for a few minutes every few days. Maybe, at some point, someone from DēLonghi Group (the Kenwood importer) will collect it?

2 May (Monday). I see a refurbished Breville mixer pop up for sale at Appliance Outlet. I’d been checking its website periodically, just in case. The tracker had moved around the building a bit at first, then remained static for a while. Could this be our Breville mixer? I buy it and feel like an excited child on Christmas Eve.

4 May (Wednesday). A courier delivers the refurbished Breville. It isn’t ours. There’s no tracker and this one looks a bit more used than the one I didn’t use at all. However, I’d scored a $450 mixer for just $150. Even the most generous Briscoes sale can’t compete with that. It looks as good as new and has a 12-month warranty. Why don’t more people know about this?

12 May (Thursday). Stop everything … after eight weeks of nothing, there’s an Operation Icebox movement alert! Jon’s fridge moves out of the MGI building and travels north up Hutt Valley. If MGI staff have stripped it for parts, they’ve managed it without disturbing our tracker, so perhaps it’s still a complete fridge? It doesn’t go to Silverstream landfill. A Google investigation shows it at 100% Newbolds Appliances, Upper Hutt – it has both new and used appliance stores. I’m so excited I make a ride-by that afternoon. Is this its final destination? Will it be repaired and resold?

18 May (Wednesday). Icebox is moving again, but not far. This time it looks like it’s just moved across the road to the used appliance store. We’ll keep a hopeful eye on it.

20 May (Friday). After a month of nothing, our Kenwood mixer hits the road. First stop is the CourierPost depot in Wellington and by that evening, it has made it north to National Park. The following day it completes its journey to a courier depot in Manukau, Auckland. Where could it be going – Appliance Outlet?

23 May (Monday). Tracker movement on a Monday morning causes far too much excitement. Our Kenwood mixer spends most of the morning scootching around a warehouse park close to Auckland Airport. Tom and I spend most of the morning speculating about where it’s going. Obviously it’s about to go overseas. Obviously. It ends the day at a logistics warehouse.

26 May (Thursday). Tracker movement on the Breville now. It doesn’t go far, just moves around inside the Appliance Outlet building. I check the website and get excited – there’s another refurbished The Scraper Beater mixer for sale. I buy it.

27 May (Friday). Courier ticket tracking shows my second refurbished Breville mixer has been collected, but the GPS tracker hasn’t moved. I’m disappointed (again). Then Tom messages later in the afternoon … there’s another refurbished Breville mixer on the website. I buy that too. Someone at Appliance Outlet probably thinks I have a mixer fetish.

30 May (Monday). Another disappointing Breville day starts promisingly. The tracker moves around inside Appliance Outlet in the morning. Then my courier tracking shows my third mixer has been collected, but the GPS tracker stays put. How many broken Breville mixers do they have there? I make a note that Breville mixers don’t seem very reliable.

31 May (Tuesday). Over the past week, our Kenwood mixer has jumped around but never moved more than 100 metres. The position accuracy it’s sending isn’t great, but we assume it’s still in the logistics warehouse.

31 May (Tuesday). Two Breville mixers arrive at home and it causes no excitement. I know the tracker is still in Auckland.

The first part of the podcast is due out on 10 June. Tom starts chasing the players for interviews. It’s time to reveal all. The manufacturers are elusive – but others shed some light on why what we’ve seen happening, happened. I am gobsmacked at some of what we’re told.

1 June (Wednesday). We find our mixer at Appliance Outlet, thanks to a video call walk through the warehouse with Mike. It was unlikely I’d have bought our mixer back – they had shelves of them there. But we found a likely looking, nearly new box, and with my help Mike found the tracker (I did do a good job hiding that one).

2 June (Thursday). A visit to 100% Newbolds for a chat with the owner, Darren, reveals Jon’s fridge complete with the tracker still secreted away in a vent. We use the tracking log to work out which fridge it is – narrowed down to one that had been moved three hours before our visit. Darren confirms the fridge is too far gone to repair, but they will strip out what parts they can and recycle the rest.

Trackers newbolds iv

3 June (Friday). Tom’s call to Computer Recycling solves our final mystery – of the Kenwood tracker that travelled several times between two locations in a day. Detective Tom and his CI Patrick at Computer Recycling deduced that the dough hook it was taped to was thrown in a metal recycling bin, and was probably stuck in that bin as it made several trips to get emptied during the day.

3 June (Friday). A good news story ends our journey. Our Breville mixer is repaired and is for sale on the Appliance Outlet website. You can grab this as-new and unused mixer for $150 – a bargain compared to the $450 we paid. I’d buy it, but I have three already.

That’s all our trackers, mixers and a fridge accounted for. So where did they end up?

  • Fisher & Paykel fridge. Useful parts removed and the rest recycled at 100% Newbolds.
  • Living & Co (The Warehouse), $79. Buried in Silverstream landfill.
  • Anko (Kmart), $75. Signal lost in transit, assumed buried in Silverstream landfill.
  • Anko v2 (Kmart), $75. Buried in Spicer landfill.
  • Breville (Briscoes), $450. Repaired and sold refurbished by Appliance Outlet.
  • Kenwood (Farmers), $740. Recycled by Computer Recycling.
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