What do retailers do with nearly new, but faulty, small appliances? We use GPS trackers to follow a dead fridge and faulty food mixers to their final destinations.
(Noise of a Kmart stand mixer being unscrewed. The mixer whirrs)
Paul Smith: All right. So let's see how many screws we have to access to get into this thing. Shouldn't be too many. It's not like it's built particularly well.
This is the Anko mixer. So that Kmart one. We need to find somewhere to put the tracker in there. I think we could drop it in there. I think that will work. It just looks like the internals of a mixer.
Producer Tom: Cool. Let's do it.
Paul Smith: I wouldn't know that's a tracker. Perfect.
Jon Duffy: Hello and welcome to Consume This hosted by me, Jon Duffy. That's Paul Smith and producer Tom. Paul's the Consumer NZ product test manager, and the brains behind the journey we're about to embark upon. They're in the Consumer workshop.
(Noise of tools and unscrewing mixers)
Paul Smith: This screw is really hard to get back into its little recess.
Jon Duffy: Well, I say workshop... It's a smallish airtight vault in the basement of our building here in Wellington. It's not somewhere you accidentally want to get locked in. In fact, before we filled it with tools, it belonged to NZ Customs. And they used it to store illegal drugs and they maintained an indexed library of confiscated pornography. In another life as a young customs officer, Consume This co-host, Sophie Richardson used to watch said pornography and decide if it was obscene enough to make it into the vault.
Anyway, at the start of the year, Paul came to us with this question...
Paul Smith: Hey guys, what do you think the stores do with all those faulty kettles and toasters and mixers and small appliances that we take back to them?
Jon Duffy: If you've ever tried to repair a small domestic appliance, something like a blender or a vacuum cleaner, you'll have an idea of how hard it is. It's incredibly frustrating. There are no repair guides. There are no spare parts available. And if you take it to a repair shop, they'll probably tell you it's just not worth it.
This is one of the reasons e-waste is one of our fastest growing toxic waste streams. We generate more than 20 kilograms per person annually. And roughly 60% of that is small domestic appliances. Now, big manufacturers, they get hundreds of faulty warranty returns every week. That's a lot of stuff. Unlike me, they can't just shove it all at the back of the cupboard with the vague idea of dealing with it some other time. And just as a sidebar, I do have two broken vacuum cleaners in my garage that I do need to deal with.
So what are they doing with them? If they are being repaired, well, it's not obvious where. And if they’re not, then where exactly did they end up? We asked some manufacturers, but none of them got back to us, and that doesn't bode well. But hey, you know, maybe they were busy. They've got businesses to run after all. And they've got lots of new products that they need to push.
And so Project Mixer was born. We bought a selection of GPS trackers online and Paul headed off to Briscoes to buy a Breville stand mixer.
(Sound of walking into Briscoes)
Paul Smith: Hi there.
Briscoes Sales Assistant: Hiya. So that one is $449.99. When you’re ready.
Paul Smith: Lovely.
Briscoes Sales Assistant: And that's your warranty for that one.
Paul Smith: Thank you.
Jon Duffy: We bought it midweek so it was full price. Full price at Briscoes! Tammy will not be happy. We also grabbed a Kenwood mixer from Farmers, which set us back $520 in a sale, and a couple of own brand offerings from Kmart and The Warehouse. They clocked in the cheapest at about $80 each. By now you should really be able to see where this is going, but just in case you're having a tough day... We've fitted the GPS trackers to the mixes. Now we're going to return them to the store and watch where they go.
Over the next two episodes, this journey takes us out of Sophie's Consumer porn dungeon and on a four-month appliance chase across the country.
(🎵🎵🎵Montage Music Plays🎵🎵🎵)
Patrick Moynahan: We have metal bins. The service provider for the collection of those bins is on Neilson Street. And so this tracker might be stuck in one of the bins.
Kmart Sales Assistant: If they're faulty we just chuck them out in the bin. We write them off and they go out. Yeah.
Michael Lovell: Oh, it's got a GPS tracker in it. We'll find that pretty quick.
Paul Smith: So I'll show you where we last got a signal. It was up there.
Jon Duffy: Yeah. So we're in an industrial part of Seaview. The business at the rear is- well, it looks to be reclaiming parts.
David Down: There's a fridge.
Patrick Moynahan: I was hoping that one of the guys from work hadn't thought they'd be cheeky and pinch a blimmin' dough mixer or something and they're driving back and forth.
Michael Lovell: Breville thinks it's going to landfill, but in reality, we aren't moving that to landfill. We're moving it through our contacts.
Paul Smith: I started out filled with hope, but you know, it's utter disappointment.
(Montage music fades out)
Jon Duffy: That's all still to come. For now, the trackers are fitted, and the receipts retained. There's just one thing left before we can return them into the wild.
Paul Smith: All right. So let's create a fault. So that's working.
Paul Smith: I might just unplug it before I start messing around with the internals.
Producer Tom: It's probably smart.
Jon Duffy: We need to create some actual faults in these mixers. We’ll look pretty stupid if the person at the returns desk plugs them in and they actually work.
Now, this shouldn't need to be said, but absolutely you should not be taking apart any appliances while it's still charged or plugged in. Consider yourself warned.
Paul Smith: So I think if we just take that connector off... It's actually quite hard to get this off.
(Noise of mixer being dismantled)
Paul Smith: Here we go. So if I try again, that should not work.
(Mixer doesn't turn on)
Paul Smith: It's broken, but it's an easy fix. If you looked at it, you'd see that cable has just come off. You could repair that at no cost other than the time it takes to undo five screws and take the top off.
Jon Duffy: The faults we created are easy to fix by design – something that would take under five minutes and require no spare parts or significant expertise.
Paul's pretty optimistic that all these mixers are going to be repaired. I have to say I'm a bit more cynical, but at least we've made it easy for them. Well, that is except the Kenwood. We had every intention of fitting the tracker, disconnecting a wire and making our own fault. But the second time we turned it on…
(Noise of broken motor)
Jon Duffy: Ouch. That doesn't sound good. Ironically, this was also the most expensive mixer. Take from that what you will. The Kenwood wasn't the only thing to break. As we were preparing to return the mixers, my four-year-old Fisher and Paykel fridge-freezer had a meltdown. Literally. There was water on the floor. We had a spare tracker, so we thought, why not?
(Noise of Paul & Jon in garage)
Paul Smith: Well, let's have a look around and see what we can do with the tracker. We can put the tracker in, in the case. Or we can take it out of the- Yeah, thinking of the process, if they are actually going to recycle that stuff and clean it up, this bit won't be touched.
Jon Duffy: Right.
Paul Smith: So maybe we get in behind that panel there. Put the panel back and maybe the last thing they'll do is they'll rip the plastic out and then we'll just see this being destroyed with the plastic. That might be the best way.
Jon Duffy: Okay. Shall we rip these shelves out?
Paul Smith: Yeah. Take the shelves out.
(Noise of the fridge shelves being removed)
Paul Smith: You haven't even cleaned out your veggie tray, Jon!
Jon Duffy: Well, that's for them to do. If the fridge hadn't broken...
Paul Smith: I'm glad to see your veggie tray looks like mine as well. In my still in-use fridge.
(Crashing noise as fridge shelf is prised out)
Paul Smith: That came out.
Paul Smith: I think that will fit in there, and then we can put this thing back over it.
Jon Duffy: Nice, that's a great idea.
Paul Smith: Perfect.
Jon Duffy: And with that, Operation Icebox was a go.
Now, even a cynic like me expects a fridge to be, at a minimum, recycled. But will it be? The tracker's primed – now we'll just have to wait and see.
(Car door slams. Sound of Paul Smith walking into a shop)
Jon Duffy: Back to Project Mixer.
Paul Smith: Over there. Appliances.
Jon Duffy: Our day of returns started off at Kmart. First up the store manager.
Paul Smith: There's no way rather than exchanging it? Cause I'm quite happy to take it apart and have a look inside. But if there's anything that needs replacing, I need the bits...
Kmart Manager: Uh, yeah, I wouldn't know. But by the time you get into it, that bit might be more than $69.
Paul Smith: Yeah, I guess.
Kmart Manager: So, yeah if you do the maths... Let's just get you a voucher.
Jon Duffy: That confirms what we already know. There's no way to get spare parts from the mixer. And even if there was, it wouldn't make financial sense to repair it. He then passed us off to another store assistant to process the voucher.
Paul Smith: Okay, cool. What's likely to happen to these that come back?
Kmart Sales Assistant: If they're faulty we just chuck them out in the bin. We write them off and they go out.
Paul Smith: Right. Awesome. Thank you.
(Sounds of leaving the store)
Jon Duffy: Well, that was blunt. No one's going to be repairing this. Neither of them even opened the box to check what was inside. We almost wanted to ask for our tracker back, but a quick scout around the back of the store revealed the presence of some recycling bins. If it makes it into one of those, then sure; it's not as good as repair, but it's not the worst outcome.
The first thing we see, when we enter The Warehouse is a big sign above the return stays, which reads - "Repairs & Exchanges". But again, we were informed that there was no way our mixer - almost brand new, easily fixable, and in its original packaging - could be repaired.
So that's the budget mixers. But what about the more expensive, Breville and Kenwood ones? Over at Briscoes there was a bit more hope. They told us it won't go to landfill. Instead, a Breville rep will come and take a look. The GPS tracker is hidden stealthily in the base ready to reveal its secrets. The sales assistant still didn't even open the box.
That changed at Farmers. They even plugged the Kenwood mixer in to confirm that it was indeed broken.
(Sound of a broken mixer motor)
Whether that's their regular diligent checking, or Paul looking a bit sifty, it's hard to say.
And now we wait. None of us have ever stuck a GPS tracker on a stand mixer before, so I'm not sure how long it's going to take for the action to start.
(Waiting around filler noise. Jon hums...)
But it wasn't long. The very next day, Paul runs over excitedly to announce the Kmart mixer is in motion. We watch it cruise around Seaview for an hour before it turns north. It ends its trip a while later at an art school in Lower Hutt. Could it be destined for a second life in a student's waste to art project?
Things are getting interesting.
(Phone dial tone)
Answer phone message: Kia Ora and welcome to the Learning Connexion. If you know the extension you are trying to reach, please enter it now. For any other department or to speak to a TLC representative, please press six or alternatively, leave a message and someone will get back to you as soon as possible.
Jon Duffy: When we got off hold we were greeted by Jude, who didn't want to be recorded. I explained our predicament, but no. She was very clear, they don't have any official waste to art courses or a recycling program.
So that theory is off the table. And the tracker hasn't moved. It's still showing up in the art school. Producer Tom jumped in his little car and drove over to have a look around.
The school is a cluster of buildings in the middle of a little forest. It's totally covered in murals. Unbelievably, it's also unlocked and completely deserted. There's no sign of our mixer.
The red dot on our GPS app indicated that it was around the back of the building. Turning the corner reveals some bright red Waste Management branded rubbish bins. The same brand we saw outside Kmart. A quick peek under the lid reveals that they're empty. Tom has another scout around but our mixer is nowhere to be seen.
It's not at the school and the tracker is no longer sending us a signal. Disappointed, he returned to the office, armed with a new theory: that the mixer and its tracker had been crushed in the back of a Waste Management rubbish truck. We didn't have to wait long to confirm the theory. The next day we got pinged as The Warehouse mixer went on a familiar tour around Seaview before sailing past the art school and right into the middle of Silverstream landfill.
And that's it. The almost brand-new Warehouse mixer has gone straight into the ground. It'll remain there slowly leaking toxins for centuries. That's a bit of a slow start for their much-touted plan to divert 90% of their waste from landfill by 2025. I wasn't really surprised though. This is exactly what the people at the returns counters told us would happen.
Paul, on the other hand was devastated.
Paul Smith: Oh yeah. So, I started out filled with hope that everybody would do the right thing and repair this stuff. But, you know, it's utter disappointment that we saw The Warehouse within a day, two days, take our mixer and just throw it away. It's frustrating we didn't track the Kmart version as well. It looked like it was heading all the way to the landfill, but ultimately we just can't be sure.
Jon Duffy: We didn't want to leave Kmart with room for ambiguity. So we went again.
Paul Smith: Alright…
Jon Duffy: grabbed a new mixer.
Paul Smith: … we need another mixer. Mixers can't be far.
Jon Duffy: Fitted another tracker…
Paul Smith: So, all right, that's not going to go out anywhere. We can turn it upside down and check it doesn't fall out. So it's good to go.
Jon Duffy: …and returned it. This time to a different store.
Paul Smith: I've got a return of a faulty mixer.
Kmart Sales Assistant: Oh ok. What was wrong with it?
Paul Smith: It doesn't power on anymore.
Kmart Sales Assistant: Oh ok...
Jon Duffy: Now we had a good idea it was going to landfill, we hatched a plan, and got in touch with David Down at Porirua City Council. They operate Spicer the nearest landfill to our new Kmart store. We arranged a visit, aiming to time it so we were there when our mixer arrived.
Sadly, Kmart's unbelievably efficient rubbish disposal beat us to it.
(Sound of rubbish truck emptying bins)
Jon Duffy: We returned it on Thursday morning and by the next afternoon there it was. Right in the middle of Spicer landfill.
We hadn't planned our trip until the next Monday morning, making it seriously unlikely we'd be able to find our mixer amongst the rubbish. As a mildly entertaining alternative, we watched the GPS signal gets shunted around the rubbish pile for a couple of hours before it stopped transmitting and vanished completely.
We later realized these final throes were the mixer being tossed around by the giant bulldozers that roam the rubbish. So much for their corporate responsibility and sustainability claims. It doesn't look good for Kmart or The Warehouse, although I must admit they operate a very efficient landfill system. I mean, Kmart managed to chuck two mixers into the pit before the Breville and Kenwood ones have even left the store!
By Monday morning, word of our trip had gotten around the office. We arrived to a small pile of broken appliances, a massive heat pump, and the request we drop it off at Trash Palace. Trash Palace is an e-waste repair and recycling drop-off point. It's literally next door to the landfill. You have to drive past it to get there!
That makes Kmart and The Warehouse’s decisions to landfill everything even more baffling.
After our quick stop at Trash Palace, we rolled up to the landfill.
(Sound of car arriving at landfill)
Paul Smith: So let’s meet Brendan and David who are the managers here.
David Down: Yeah. Hi, David Down.
Brendon Cribb: G'day, Brendon Cribb.
Jon Duffy: After a quick safety briefing, Paul takes out his phone and shows them the final location of our tracker.
Paul Smith: Let's have a look. So we're down here. So I'll show you where we last got a signal. It was up there.
David Down: How deep would it be now?
Brendon Cribb: It'll be about three meters deep.
Paul Smith: Which suggests why the signal is still showing that it's lost its cellphone. So it will be buried, not getting a signal out. So it still thinks it’s in its journey.
Producer Tom: Well, we're not going to see it if it's three meters deep are we?
David Down: No. But you could probably indicate pretty much where that spot is up there. That was wherever the tipface was on Friday.
Brendon Cribb: We'll know where that was and we can point out roughly where it's buried.
Jon Duffy: And so the hunt was on. We donned hardhats and high-vis. We jumped into the back of a ute.
Producer Tom: Oh, wow. I've never been in one of these big utes.
David Down: Sorry. It's a little small in the back.
Jon Duffy: And headed up to the tip face, determined to identify our mixers’ final resting place.
(Sounds of car doors closing & engine starting)
Brendon Cribb: All in?
Paul Smith: Yup.
David Down: Kmart... So did they offer to repair it or were you just saying it’s faulty? Can I have a new one?
Paul Smith: They didn't even open the box.
David Down: Wow.
Paul Smith: For all they knew I could have taken a mixer box back with a few rocks in it.
David Down: Right.
(Sound of car arriving at tip face. People get out.)
David Down: So where do you reckon the blender is?
Brendon Cribb: The blender would be over in that far square.
Jon Duffy: Technically, it's not a blender, it's a mixer, but you get it.
Brendon Cribb: It's been covered off. We were filling that up until Monday and then we've moved down into this spot. So Friday's rubbish would be over there.
Paul Smith: So the rubbish comes in each day and then you cover it over most nights?
Brendon Cribb: Every night it gets covered over.
Paul Smith: Wow.
David Down: What depth are we at here?
Brendon Cribb: This is about 220 meters, and we've still got another 20 odd meters to go up in height.
Paul Smith: So there's still a decent volume, but I suspect looking at the amount that's coming in while we've been standing here, it won't take long to fill that.
Brendon Cribb: No, obviously we're filling a lot quicker than we originally planned. We'll hopefully reduce that a bit, but the way it's going there's more coming to the landfill than ever before.
David Down: So that's this area that we're filling now. Uh, we expect to be full in 2026.
Jon Duffy: This is the other problem with landfilling everything. As well as being a huge waste of resources, it takes up precious space – space that's actually rapidly running out. Sure, a standard mixer isn't that big, but it adds up. As we let that thought sink in, David spots something else.
David Down: There's a fridge.
Paul Smith: There's a fridge we're looking at down there that's just come out of that latest batch. It's now being crushed by those enormous wheels.
Brendon Cribb: So effectively, once it's dumped by a truck up here, it's just processed in and covered and compacted, and more than likely not de-gassed. It's probably just been chucked into a skip bin by a person, brought up here in a truck, tipped off and then just pushed out with the general rubbish.
Jon Duffy: At this point, we remembered Operation Icebox and glanced down at our tracking app in horror. But thankfully, no, it's not my fridge.
Producer Tom wanted to head down past the fridge, round the bulldozer and onto the rubbish heap. Despite not having a spade, there might be a chance to rescue our friend from Kmart.
Producer Tom: I don't suppose we can go down and prod it can we?
Brendon Cribb: No [laughs].
Jon Duffy: So that was it. Our mixer was nowhere to be seen. Buried somewhere in an ever0increasing mountain of rubbish. A mountain that, ironically, sits next to Trash Palace, a building full of people doing their best to recycle and repair e-waste. Appliances exactly like the ones Kmart and The Warehouse sent to the tip without a second thought. We mentioned this to David.
David Down: One of the hard parts about bringing in some of your small appliances to Trash Palace is they still need to fix that thing or clean that thing, put it on the shelf and then sell it, and then be able to pay for that operation. And that's very difficult to do when you can go to Kmart and pick up a new iron for 20 bucks, you can get a new electric jug at New World for $15.
And those guys are finding it very, very hard. They're no longer competing with other similar outlets. They're competing with the retailer who is prepared to put an exceptionally cheap item on the shelf. So that's in effect a disincentive for them.
Now, our guys down here sell a lot of goods, which five or 10 years ago may have been very attractive. You can go in and buy something that'll still work for a couple of years and you've paid 20 bucks for it. Well, you can go and buy a new one now.
Jon Duffy: Overcome with emotion, Paul decides our Kmart mixer, now 10 feet under, deserves a eulogy.
Paul Smith: Our mixer had quite a short life. We bought it a week prior to taking it back. It was a simple fault to fix, it only needed a wire reconnecting inside if somebody bothered to look. A day after it went back to the store at Kmart in Porirua it made a short journey - two/three kilometers - and it's had its final resting place underneath that big pile of soil I'm looking out over there. Trampled into the ground by an incredibly interesting looking bulldozer. Rest in peace, mixer.
Jon Duffy: And with that, slightly disappointed, we head back down to the office.
(People getting in car - car door slams)
Paul Smith: Well, this is the first time I've actually been at the coalface of a landfill and it's fascinating. You expect to see a whole load of rubbish and that's what we've seen, but I wasn't quite expecting to see quite so many trucks arrive. And watching it over the period of - what have we been here, about half an hour - see it fill up quite as much as it does. Shows how much waste we throw away.
Jon Duffy: As we were preparing to head off, we asked David one final question. What does he think about our e-waste problem?
David Down: Yeah. If I was going to make a pitch, for example, to my council and say, here is a number of things that we need to divert away from the landfill, if I'm being perfectly honest with you, electronics would not be one of them. It would be green and organic and food waste that creates methane greenhouse gases, and it would be the construction and demolition material that is eating up all our capacity.
Paul Smith: And maybe the problem is that, because it's not a problem at your end, that stuff's falling through the cracks that nobody's really looking at it.
David Down: I'll be completely open, and like I said, it's not one of the big things that we've got our eye on at the moment. But on the reverse side of that, I would have said that the recovery of gold, for example, that's in the circuit of every bit of electronic device, should be easy enough to do.
Jon Duffy: Yeah, look, I can understand David's perspective. He's really prioritising the problem as he sees it at his end. But it strikes me as absolutely bananas that we put so much effort into the extraction of the resources needed to build these appliances in the first place, we spend so much energy shipping them from manufacturing centres around the world to New Zealand, only for manufacturers to throw them straight into landfill at the first sign of a problem. That just seems bananas to me.
But also, if we take the viewpoint that money will solve everything, we're actually dumping a whole lot of precious minerals into landfill as well, not least of which is gold. So where does that leave us?
Within a couple of days of being returned to our store our Kmart and Warehouse mixers were buried in a big hole in the ground, under tons of other rubbish. No repair. No recycling. No hope. I can't say I'm surprised by this, but I am pretty disappointed. We should all be disappointed. The Warehouse, in particular, puts a lot of effort into sustainability marketing, but when it comes down to it, they haven't delivered in this case. We invited them to come in and talk to us, but they weren't interested. They did send us a bit of a... non-statement.
The Warehouse Statement: We're investigating this incident further and are reviewing our processes. In this case, we haven't got it right as the item may have been able to be repaired or recycled.
Jon Duffy: And as for Kmart, Chris Foley, their head of energy and environment gave us a quick phone call, but they didn't follow up with any official comment prior to recording. Which is a shame, because what we really need to know is why this is happening and what we can do to prevent it. We'll be exploring that more in part two.
Michael Lovell: The biggest hindrance there is that we can’t resell that product. So if I was allowed to market that off to other stores around the country and say, "Hey, look, you've got a secondhand store, I've got a bunch of products for you," I could be shipping four or five pallet loads a day around the country. But Breville and LG will not allow that at all.
Jon Duffy: Whilst all this has been unfolding, the Kenwood and Breville mixers have been patiently sitting in store, waiting for their turn to get in on the action. And about four weeks later, that happens.
Are they also destined for the landfill? Actually, no, they're destined for a different fate.
Michael Lovell: This is probably your one here. It says: doesn't turn on, looks in good condition.
Patrick Moynahan: So you can actually export the products, but that line becomes very blurry. There's huge demand for these sorts of consumer electronics in the Philippines or Malaysia or Pakistan, but then you run the risk and the ethical conundrum. We'll send it there, and then what happens to it? It goes to some unregulated landfill in the Philippines or whatever it might be. So it's a bit of a tricky one.
Jon Duffy: We'll find out more in the next episode, when we'll also go undercover to follow the trail of Operation Icebox. AKA, my fridge.
(🎵 Credits Music 🎵)
Jon Duffy: This episode was produced by Tom Riste-Smith and executive produced by Gemma Rausmussen. Our guest star, and the brains behind this investigation was Consumer NZ test manager Paul Smith. '
At Consumer we've recently started the biggest change to our product testing since the 1960s. It's designed to help you buy appliances, you know, will last. We only recommend durable appliances that will work well for a long time by including measures of reliability, owner satisfaction and repairability. Repairability is tough to measure, but we committed to working out how to do it properly.
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