In this episode, host Jon Duffy is joined by Consumer NZ product test manager Dr Paul Smith, as well as Appliance Outlet Manager Michael Lovell and Computer Recycling boss Patrick Moynahan.
Jon Duffy: Hello, I'm Jon Duffy, co-host of Consume This. Welcome back to part two of "Cut & Chuck: Where Faulty Goods Go To Die". In part one, we fitted GPS trackers to stand mixers from The Warehouse, Kmart and the brands Breville and Kenwood.
(Sounds of GPS Tracker being fitted to a stand mixer)
Paul Smith: We could drop it in there, then it just looks like the internals of our mixer.
Jon Duffy: Around the same time, my Fisher & Paykel fridge broke. So we also whacked one in there and named it Operation Icebox.
(Sound of GPS tracker being fitted to a fridge)
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...
After creating some easily fixable faults in the mixers we returned them.
(Sound of returning the mixer to Kmart)
Paul Smith: 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. Yeah.
Jon Duffy: That was the sales assistant at Kmart. It turns out she was right. Within a couple of days, both the Kmart and The Warehouse mixers were sent straight to the nearest landfill and buried. No attempt at repair or recycling.
David Down: No, but you could probably indicate pretty much where that spot is up there. Wherever the tip face was on Friday.
Brendon Cribb: Where the tip face was on Friday, we'll know where that was and we can point out roughly where it's buried.
Jon Duffy: And that's where part one left off. Disappointed, but not entirely surprised.
The Breville and Kenwood mixers are still in circulation. Their fate is yet to be uncovered by our GPS trackers, but I'll give you an early spoiler - they both end up going on long road trips to different places.
Patrick Moynahan: We have metal bins. The service provider for the collection of those bins is on Neilsen Street.And so this tracker might be stuck in one of the bins.
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- where we last got a signal was up there.
Jon Duffy: So we're in an industrial part of Seaview. The business at the rear is, uh, well, it looks to be reclaiming parts.
David Down: There's a fridge.
Paul Smith: 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 blooming dough mixer or something and they're driving back and forth.
Michael Lovell: I mean, Breville thinks it's going to landfill, but in reality we aren't moving that to landfill. We're moving it through our contacts.
Jon Duffy: After our initial flurry of excitement with the Kmart and Warehouse mixers, things quietened down. Occasionally, the GPS app on my phone would ping a notification. Paul and Tom would run over excitedly to look, but it always ended in disappointment. The mixers were being shunted small distances around the back room of the store. Paul was convinced it was employees moving them around the corner of the break room, irritated by their presence. He's probably right.
Jon Duffy: With the deadline for this episode looming, we started to panic a little bit. Would we even have anything to report? The only comforting thing about this is that they didn't go straight to landfill. And by this point, we were pretty confident that wasn't their fate. Kmart and The Warehouse have already proved the rubbish system is efficient. It's highly unlikely Farmers and Briscoes would've stored the mixers for weeks, only to turn around and chuck them in the bin. If that was their destiny, they'd already be there.
So Project Mixer is on hold. It's not like we can storm into the store and demand they do something with them. For now, it's out of our hands. So, let's switch our focus back to Operation Icebox.
After we fitted the tracker in the fridge, we waited some more. There's actually a lot of waiting in this episode. Fisher & Paykel contracted MGI Whiteware Limited to pick it up from my garage and do... something with it. We heard rumours about an Oamaru recycling centre, a place where Fisher and Paykel fridges go to die.
Would it be taking a trip across the Cook Strait? I secretly hoped so. It would be a great excuse for a South Island road trip. Exactly a week after fitting the tracker, the fridge moved. The ferry terminal is south of my house, but the fridge... well, that headed north up State Highway One to a quiet residential street in Porirua.
We were confused. Why was my broken fridge at a residential address? A quick Google stalk revealed it was a home address linked to the owner of MGI. Our theory was that this employee had picked the fridge up on their way home and it was sitting in the van on their driveway spending the night. But of course, that meant it was headed elsewhere. Maybe even on that ferry trip.
Early the next morning we were proved right - sort of. It headed back down State Highway One. We should have been excited at the possibility it was heading back to the ferry terminal. Oamaru here we come. But the team and I, well, we were all actually still asleep. By the time we made it into the office the tracker had stopped in... Seaview.
It might not be Oamaru, but it's less than half an hour from our office. So a few days later, we decided to go undercover.
(Sound of car & driving)
Jon Duffy: So here we are. We're approaching, um, MGI Limited whiteware installers.
Paul Smith: There's a lot of whiteware out there.
Jon Duffy: There certainly is. I can see a grey fridge that looks a lot like my fridge. I can also see a car pulling right up behind us and wanting to get past.
Producer Tom: Um, okay. Well, let's loop around and we'll turn around because I think we'll get a better view from the other side of the road. I should have warned you, I'm not that good at a driver by the way.
Jon Duffy: We've worked that out for ourselves, Tom. So yeah.
Well, as undercover as you can be when you're three bearded gentlemen, holding up traffic and waving about massive microphones. We couldn't see that much from the car so we parked up and decided to risk a walk by.
(Sounds of getting out of the car)
Jon Duffy: I think we're on Port Road. Are we?
Paul Smith: We are on Port Road. Yeah.
Jon Duffy: Yeah. We're about 200 meters away from the facility where we think my old fridge is.
We were trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. As I mentioned earlier, that's not an easy task...
And yeah, we're just walking past the back of the warehouse now. It's full of fridges and ovens. There's a couple of chaps beavering away looking like they're dismantling, um, appliances.
But no one paid us any attention. On reflection I don't actually know why we were trying to be sneaky. I seriously doubt many whiteware installers are looking out for rogue podcasters. We're not exactly the spooks.
Jon Duffy: We almost, you know, we could almost have a look through this window, perhaps see it there.
Paul Smith: It might be yours, Jon.
Jon Duffy: Too small, I reckon.
Paul Smith: No, the one behind it.
Jon Duffy: Oh yeah. Yes.
Paul Smith: The one behind it looks like it's about that sort of size.
Jon Duffy: I agree. That looks like my fridge. Yes.
Jon Duffy: Emboldened by our success and convinced we were now undercover experts, we decided to walk back to the car through the MGI yard to get a closer look. Again, it's worth pointing out that we were carrying large microphones and talking loudly. We weren't undercover experts. MGI... well, they were just too busy doing their jobs to care about us.
Paul Smith: There's two guys out there, two reasonably elderly guys, um, taking apart an oven I think they were working on at the time.
Jon Duffy: Yeah.
Paul Smith: But just stripping parts out and loading them into the back of a ute. Um, what they're gonna do with those, I dunno.
Jon Duffy: What struck me as we walked past was, yeah, it's an old dude with a screwdriver pulling it apart. It's quite a manual process. This isn't at all automated, so I guess that suggests to me the costs of actually reclaiming these parts, if you take labour into account, must be quite high.
Paul Smith: I'm just surprised they're even dismantling stuff. I assumed this was a staging area where they collect locally, and then they send this down to a bigger place that can actually process this stuff efficiently. But I'm guessing this is the end of the line for your fridge.
Jon Duffy: So, mystery solved. Our fridge was in a queue waiting to be dismantled and reclaimed for parts. Or so we thought. But for the next eight weeks, nothing happened. Paul cycled past a few times to check in on it. And every time, well, there it was sitting in the same spot.
If MGI were going to dismantle it, they were clearly not in any rush. Then finally, after eight weeks - just before the deadline for this episode - we got a notification on the GPS app. There was movement.
Paul Smith: Yeah, so I dunno how accurate the tracker is. It's obviously not right there because that's outside in the middle of nowhere.
Jon Duffy: We'll come back to Operation Icebox soon, but first let's check in with our mixers.
The Breville mixer was the first to go. It left Briscoes on a Friday and spent the weekend in... would you believe it? Seaview. A weekend ride past by Paul confirms that it's in a NZ Post depot. We don't have to wait long to find out where it's headed. Overnight on Monday it heads up to Auckland, finally being deposited at an address in East Tāmaki, which we trace to Appliance Outlet. A quick scan of their website reveals that they sell repaired and refurbished appliances from, amongst other brands, Breville. If it gets repaired, we'll put that down as a success. Great work by Breville.
Over the next two weeks, Paul kept a diligent eye on the Appliance Outlet website. Eventually they list a Breville stand mixer. In an attempt to buy it back and close the circle he pounces, but the mixer that turns up isn't ours.
They list another one a couple of weeks later, but again, it's not ours. The tracker shows it's still sitting in the warehouse. Appliance Outlet are good value, but at this point we ban Paul from buying any more mixes. The basement is filling up and the bank account is emptying.
(MS Teams ringtone)
Jon Duffy: Instead, producer Tom arranged a video call with Michael Lovell, repair expert and general manager of Appliance Outlet.
(Michael answers the call)
Michael Lovell: Okay. It's working this time.
Jon Duffy: I explained our story, and that we could see the mixer sitting in their warehouse.
Michael Lovell: Oh, it's got a GPS tracker in it. We'll find that pretty quick. You know what, I'll take you for a walk down and I'll show you and you'll understand. Because you'll probably spot it on the shelfs waiting.
Can I flip that camera?
Jon Duffy: And the answer is yes, he could flip the camera. And with that we were off. Down the winding corridor and into the belly of Appliance Outlet, on a hunt to find our mixer. While we walked through the building towards the warehouse, we explained that the fault was extremely easy to fix, convinced that would be a bit unusual.
Michael Lovell: You'd be surprised how many come back like that though. So much stuff comes back where it's just user error. So many products and especially from the big retailers like Harvey's and Noel's and that. A customer will come in and say, this is faulty. Well, they don't care. They don't want to muck around with it and test it. They know they're getting a credit from Breville, so they just give you another one. So we end up getting a lot of product back that isn't really faulty.
Here's an example. We got a OLED TV the other day, a $5,000 TV. The customer returned it saying the screen was cracked. It was just the plastic protective film on the front of it.
A lot of the small appliances are usually genuinely faulty, like toasters, kettles and that. They're just about always faulty. Coffee machines - it's the entry level coffee machines that are usually user error because people are like, oh, I wanna buy a coffee machine. Of course, they're gonna buy the cheapest one they can because they don't know anything about it. And then they don't know how to use it. They literally expect a barista to pop outta the box and hand them a coffee. And when they don't get coffee like that, they get grumpy and return 'em to the store.
And again, I spoke to Breville about that and she said, yeah, we don't care. We sell so many. It doesn't matter.
Jon Duffy: So if I've understood correctly, what Michael's really saying here is that the waste is built into the business model. A former Breville service manager we spoke to confirmed they expect anything up to a 5% return rate on faulty items.
That's one in every 20 product sold. At this point, we entered the warehouse.
Michael Lovell: So you can see that, can't you?
Jon Duffy: We could see it. And we suddenly realised why Paul's attempt to buy our mixer back had been so fruitless.
Michael Lovell: So that's one Breville area, more Breville down the back there taking up the back wall.
Jon Duffy: There are literally thousands of appliances waiting to be repaired.
Michael Lovell: So you can see that area of the warehouse alone is just Breville product that's waiting to be processed.
Jon Duffy: The shelves are full and there are even more boxes stacked up on the floor.
Michael Lovell: That's another Breville area. That's where your mixer’s gonna be – down there.
Jon Duffy: It's clear even with the GPS signal, we're gonna need some help.
Michael Lovell: Abhay - We're looking for a Breville mixer with a GPS tracker in it.
Jon Duffy: Abhay is a repair technician. He heads off down another aisle to join in the search.
Michael Lovell: Good work buddy.
Jon Duffy: But ultimately, it's Michael himself who strikes mixer. On the floor in front of the pallet rack he spies a box.
Michael Lovell: That's from Masterton... This is probably your one here. It says doesn't turn on, looks in good condition.
Abhay, can you just try that one please and pop the base off?
Jon Duffy: And with that, Abhay undid the base of the mixer and there was our tracker. It took him another 30 seconds to connect the wire. And that was it. The circle was complete.
Michael Lovell: Oh yeah, definitely. So it's gonna go out into our showroom, but the thing is, it's not just on the floor. It's on TradeMe. It's on the website. It's on PriceMe and a lot of those other places as well.
Jon Duffy: Before we let Michael go, I wanted to know more about the economics of this operation. Specifically, how Appliance Outlet’s deal with Breville works. Michael found a quiet corner of the office and we got into it.
Michael Lovell: I mean, we support ourselves for the most part. We've managed to negotiate some stuff with Breville this year to get a bit more marketing material out of them and that. And they have no issue with it. They're quite happy to support us. They've got no one else without us. So if we pulled the plug on them today, Breville would be looking for a landfill. A very, very big landfill. So we do have a little bit of negotiating power with Breville.
And another thing, with the meeting we had with Breville about two or three months ago now... Even Breville themselves had no idea how much stock of theirs we're sitting on. And they said what they were gonna do after that was go and raise the cut and chuck dollar limit for the stores around the country, so that they could do more without it coming back to us.
Jon Duffy: Cut and chuck is the policy of cutting the cord off a product and throwing it in the bin. It's the Kmart and Warehouse approach, but Breville, it turns out, are also taking this approach to some extent. If you return anything that costs under about $200, hen Breville's policy is to cut and chuck.
Michael Lovell: It comes in quicker than we can process it. And Breville thinks it's going to landfill. I push that back on them to try and get more out of them to deal with it. But in reality, we aren't moving that to landfill. We're moving it through our contacts. The only saving grace for that is our contract with Breville that says we don't pay for it until we sell it.
One thing that we've really picked up from Breville is that when the product gets here, as far as they're concerned, that's the end of the line. It has hit the landfill, as far as Breville USA's concerned, and that landfill is called Appliance Outlet. What we do with it after it's here, they don't really care about. As long as it doesn't end up in places they don't want it to end up.
Jon Duffy: Those places include stores that compete with the retailers selling brand new products. That's why you don't find an Appliance Outlet on every High Street. The manufacturers, well, they just don't allow it to happen. Talking to Michael, it's clear that his main limiting factor is the demand for refurbished products.
He's allowed to sell them via his own store, their website of course, and their TradeMe store. But if they were allowed to sell wholesale, say for example to second hand stores, he'd be able to rescue far more from the landfill.
Michael Lovell: If Breville had their way, it would all be in landfill. We circumvent that the ways we do because I mean, it's just not right. If I had to find a figure, I would probably say no more than 10 to 15% would end up in a skip.
Jon Duffy: For those appliances where it's not economical to recycle or refurbish, they've developed a novel way of keeping them out of the landfill.
Michael Lovell: We actually have a little space out the back of the shop where we put that product now. And there's quite a little community of scrap bin divers - I think you call them - that come around at nighttime and take it all away. So it's going through a kind of a recycling process there as well. These guys, some of them strip that out. They'll get all the copper out. They'll recycle them down to those components. Others try and fix them and resell them themselves.
We cut the cords off, all that sort of stuff. And we make them as inoperable as we can, just for electrical safety. But there's quite a little community. There's about six to eight guys that come around here at nighttime. That's at a point now where they're quite respectful, they'll just take what they need. They don't leave a mess or anything anymore. So it works quite well.
Jon Duffy: That's the main thing I got from our conversation with Michael at Appliance Outlet... They're a team of people who are really dedicated to repairing, reusing and minimising waste. This is the way it should be done. Kmart and The Warehouse take note. That just leaves our Kenwood mixer unaccounted for. Several weeks after being returned, it was still being shunted around in Farmers. It was getting closer and closer to our deadline. We were starting to worry. We didn't think it was gonna move in time. Then something unexpected happened. The Icebox moved again. After our, uh, successful undercover trip, we thought it had reached its final destination. It looked set to be dismantled, stripped for parts, and recycled at MGI in Seaview.
But here it was on the GPS tracking screen, heading up State Highway Two towards Upper Hutt. It ended its journey at a 100% Newbolds clearance centre. – a second hand and refurbished white good centre. Surely my fridge wasn't going to be repaired and resold. The compressor was broken. That's a major fault. Even Paul at his most optimistic wasn't expecting repair. And then bam, COVID finally caught up with me. While I was locked away in isolation, Paul and Tom went up to investigate what was going on.
(Road & rain noise)
Paul Smith: We're in a car park, outside 100% Newbolds. On one side is the new appliance store, or the back of the new appliance store that fronts onto the main street. On the other side is the warehouse with the big red Newbolds door and three or four shipping containers outside which we assume are filled with appliances.
It's absolutely tipping it down with rain. We're here to see Darren who's the manager of the store, and we want to go inside and find our fridge.
So let's go inside and see if we can find both of those.
Jon Duffy: What Paul didn't tell you was that they were also standing next to a 100% Newbolds van with a massive photo of Darren's face on it. With that image burnt into their brain, they managed to locate him pretty quickly behind the main counter in the store.
(Sound of walking into the store)
Producer Tom: We're looking for Darren.
Darren Gittins: That would be me.
Producer Tom: Hey Darren, it's Tom from Consumer.
Darren Gittins: How you going?
Producer Tom: And Paul.
Darren Gittins: Cool. Hey Paul, how are you?
Paul Smith: Good. Nice to meet you.
Darren Gittins: Excellent.
Jon Duffy: After explaining the trackers…
Paul Smith: Yeah. So I dunno how accurate the tracker is. So it's obviously not right there because that's outside in the middle of nowhere.
Jon Duffy: And showing him the GPS app…
Darren Gittins: Yeah. So that's out the back there.
Jon Duffy: They were off again.
(Sound of walking into the warehouse - the radio plays)
Paul Smith: So we're going into the used appliances warehouse.
Darren Gittins: Yep. So this is repairs.
Paul Smith: Lots of stuff.
Darren Gittins: So, would one of these be your fridge?
Paul Smith: Might well be that one in the middle. It didn't have a water thing on the front. So it could well be that one.
Producer Tom: If you give it a wobble, the tracker might move.
Paul Smith: It's a good idea. I dunno how sensitive the tracker is, but if not, it's in there. So if we could take out a couple of shelves and pull that out, let's see if I can see it in there.
Darren Gittins: So, if this has been condemned, then potentially it might have a fault that can’t be fixed. So it'll be scrapped for parts sort of thing, or recycled.
Paul Smith: So it wasn't worth fixing.
Darren Gittins: So we wouldn't fix this. But they'd give it to us and we'd keep the shelves and the doors and, um, you know. So it would be essentially not worth repairing or fixing or selling, you know.
Jon Duffy: And that was the mystery solved. My fridge's journey has taken four months. It's travelled from my garage in Wellington, up to Porirua, taken an extended break in Seaview, and finally ended up at 100% Newbolds in Upper Hutt, where it's become an organ donor. It'll sit there for many more months, slowly being stripped apart to extend the life of its other fridgy friends.
There was just one thing left to understand: why was the fridge at MGI for so long only to end up here? When we went undercover it was clear that MGI also have a part stripping and recycling setup... Well, as it turns out, Darren and Chris - who owns MGI - are friends. Basically, MGI was too busy to strip the fridge down. So he gave it to 100% Newbolds instead. No money changed hands.
Darren Gittins: We've known him for years and he'll just say, "Hey, you guys, we're scrapping this, you can have the bits" and we just take the parts. It's one we can't resell, but we can certainly get the bits off. So it's not really worth anything.
Jon Duffy: It's just two guys passionate about giving faulty appliances a second life and keeping them out of the landfill.
Darren Gittins: As I said, we share things and, you know, if he needs a shelf for a specific fridge, he comes and sees us and and vice versa. Kind of using the things that have been scrapped for another life really.
Jon Duffy: At this point, we are nearing the end of our investigation. Only our most expensive mixer – the Kenwood – is left in circulation. We'd almost given up on it, but then it moves, zipping up to Auckland where it spends the night next to the airport. Kenwood is distributed in Aotearoa by De'Longhi, an Australian company. Was our mixer going across the ditch?
No. A couple of days later, it finally moved. It moved to Computer Recycling, an e-waste recycling centre. We arranged a call with the managing director, Patrick Moynahan.
Patrick Moynahan: What we do- and I better not say the company name. So we have a relationship with an Australian manufacturer, and this is where this came from. And you can piece the names together, but I just don't wanna say it.
Jon Duffy: I think we can safely assume this is De'Longhi.
Patrick Moynahan: They have a return scheme. They will return about 300 to 400 units, every three to four weeks, that would be returned for one reason or another. And we then collect it and it's our mandate or our, uh, contractual arrangement to destroy them all.
Jon Duffy: Destroying, in this case, actually means recycling.
Patrick Moynahan: We'll unbox them. We'd take metal out. That metal would go to aluminium recycling. Polystyrene should, in theory, go to these big bulk bags that we take to a Polystyrene recycler. Cardboard goes to cardboard. The consumer electronics - we won't test them because we're not allowed to. If we are told that they cannot be remarketed, re-engineered or repaired then we'll destroy them.
Jon Duffy: Computer Recycling is home to the blue box. It's a giant blue conveyor belt and shredder. After the e-waste is shredded, it's sorted into its various components for recycling. Now, this is the bare minimum. There's no excuse for any company to be sending anything to landfill rather than somewhere like Computer Recycling. But there's a reason they don't. It's more expensive.
Patrick Moynahan: Well, we would charge that company a transport fee. So if we send a truck, there would be a fee of $40 a pallet or something like that to bring it back to our depot. Usually there will be an associated cost. Let's say there's 10,000 kilos. We might recover 20 cents a kilo in material value, but it costs 35 cents a kilo in handling fees, because it's a very manual process in terms of de-boxing and cutting the cardboard and chopping the cables and that sort of thing. From a commercial standpoint, it adds another layer of complexity. They don't legally have to do it. That's where we differ a lot in New Zealand. You know, there's no regulation or legislation. So unlike overseas, where you would pay into a product stewardship fund.
Jon Duffy: The Kenwood has been shredded and recycled. Better than landfill, but a long, long way off repair. Maybe a four out of 10. So now we're at the end of our journey, let's recap the Project Mixer repairability league table. At the bottom are Kmart and The Warehouse. They made no attempt to investigate the faults, instead opting to cut and chuck our brand-new mixers.
Holding up the mid table it's Kenwood. Recycled, but not repaired.
And sitting pretty, 10 points clear at the top of the league, Breville and Appliance Outlet. They took our mixer, repaired it and resold it at a price that's comparable to the cheap Kmart and The Warehouse brands. This is how the system should work. Next time you're looking for a new toaster, kettle, TV, coffee machine, whatever it is, take a look at Appliance Outlet and places like it. Not only will you be able to get yourself a deal, but you'll also be giving a second life to something that would otherwise be destined for the landfill.
We all have the power to use our money to vote for the world we want. That's what being a consumer in modern New Zealand really means.
The most shocking (not shocking) thing about our investigation is that the manufacturers don't actually care. Their job is to make and sell more new appliances. Even those that do the right thing only achieve it by dumping their products on hardworking third parties who do everything in their power to reuse and recycle.
They're not going to change on their own. We need to tell them that isn't acceptable anymore. There are three pieces of legislation that we need to fix our waste problem. They're not novel and they've all started to be adopted in other parts of the world.
Firstly, we need to adopt a product stewardship scheme that forces manufacturers to take responsibility for their products at the end of those products’ lives, and crucially, stops them from going to landfill. The government is currently working on this with more information expected later this year.
Secondly, a right to repair. This legislation would force manufacturers to provide spare parts and repair guides. Some manufacturers are already doing this, but the practice is not particularly common. The goal here is to make it more cost effective to repair than to cut and chuck.
And thirdly, durability labelling. A durability rating would be based on how long an appliance is expected to last and how easy it is to repair. Currently, when you walk into a shop and compare two products it's almost impossible to know which one will last a year and which one will last 10 years. Price is the best comparator that we have. And of course, that's completely susceptible to manipulation by manufacturers. This has to change. It might seem like a tough ask, but this system already exists in France. If the French can do it, why can't we?
Here at Consumer NZ, we'll keep pushing for these regulations. But in the meantime, we'll also be updating our independent product reviews with information on durability, reliability and repairability. It's a long journey, but with your support, we're committed to getting there.
You've been listening to Consume This, hosted by me, Jon Duffy, and guest starring Consumer NZ product test manager Paul Smith. This episode was produced by Tom Riste-Smith. The executive producer was Gemma Rasmussen. Consume This is produced by Consumer NZ. We're a small not-for-profit supported by our members.
For more information about the benefits of becoming a member or how you can support us, check out the Consumer NZ website or follow the link in the show notes.
See you later.