Case Study 1: Abilities Recycling Trip

Bachelor Applied Technology – Building

2.Zero Waste4.Sustainable Materials8.Culture & Community

Who was Involved? 
All students completing Unitec’s Bachelor of Applied Technology – Building take a compulsory 15 credit Level 6 course on Sustainable Technologies (APTE 6103) in their second year. This course sits alongside integration of sustainability across the other courses within the degree. The course is team taught by Rashika Sharma, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science, a Masters in Sustainable Education, and is currently completing a PhD on the same topic and Dr Mary Panko, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Zoology and a PhD in online education. Mary originally created this course in 2004 as a way of better embedding sustainability within the programme. Students from this course go on to become building managers, project managers and property developers. Classes typically contain 35-40 students.

What Happened?

As part of this course students take a field trip to Abilities Recycling based in Glenfield, Auckland. Abilities is an Incorporated Society established to provide meaningful work for people with disabilities. Alongside light electro-mechanical assembly and contract packaging their major area of work is the recycling, disassembly, sorting and disposal of electronic goods including computers, CRT monitors, and TV’s.

One of the key learning outcomes of Sustainable Technologies is to experience sustainability in workplace and community settings. The Abilities fieldtrip exposes the students to the complexity of end of life recycling. On some of the first visits students were able to undertake a health and safety briefing, then don safety equipment to join the Abilities team in stripping down mother boards and televisions. The class size has since grown, so students are now spilt into smaller groups to take a tour with Abilities hosts who explain the recycling process, while the students observe and ask questions at the different workstations. The tour takes about 90 minutes.

What was the Outcome?

Rashika and Mary describe the students hearing that there were 250,000 Sky decoders to be dismantled, and seeing each one take 30 actions to take apart, from box to bits, to enable recycling. The repetitive nature of the job, pulling things apart all day showed the unglamorous and time-consuming reality of recycling.

Students completing Sustainable Technologies focus on the quadruple bottom line – covering the relationship of social, economic, environmental and governance issues. This field trip allows exposure to all these elements of sustainability. Students are exposed to the societal implications of the people working there. They are exposed to the financial opportunities and barriers of the different products and materials being recycled. They also gain understanding of the importance of sustainable design principles like design for disassembly, extended producer responsibility, material recyclability and toxicity in reducing environmental impacts. Students hear about the environmental impacts of electronic goods as they are exposed to the complexity and difficulty of breaking them down, the extent of the different materials sorted and the handling requirements for these. The students learn first-hand the potential environmental consequences of poor design practices and the potential for pollution should these items end up in landfill or dumped.

Rashika and Mary describe the reactions of students “Talking about this in class they get a limited understanding, but seeing it in reality cements that learning and an understanding of the scale and implications. One of the students said ‘I didn’t realise what recycling was. Now I’m going to recycle’.”

Links to related Sustainability Approaches and Resources:

Abilities Recycling Centre    New Zealand Waste Minimisation Strategy

The Story of Electronics (video)         NZ Waste Electrical and Electronic Checklists

The Circular Economy (video)            Product Stewardship