His business, Dominion Trading, buys the used lead acid batteries from scrap yards and garages, then exports them to Korea to be recycled. But he has not been able to send them since late last year due to supply chain constraints.
“We had to pull out of buying batteries from other scrap metal dealers all together. We were just running out of money and running out of room to store the batteries.
“We took on more storage, we leased another warehouse in Auckland to store batteries but there’s a limit as to how much we can really finance this… we’re probably sitting on over 1800 tonne of batteries,” he said.
Stewart said container space was hard to come by at the best of times but had been virtually non-existent for the past six months.
“In early December we ran into a problem with getting the containers onto boats. The reason for that is there were a lot of refrigerated containers, and they are carried up deck and hazardous waste, which the batteries are, has to be carried up deck as well.
“They have to be separated from the refrigerated containers which probably contain foodstuffs, so they were taking very few containers, nowhere near the number of containers that we had to move.”
Batteries can also not be loaded on shipping lines that transit through China, due to local dangerous goods regulations.
That leaves Stewart and the handful of other companies that have a licence to export, with on average, one shipping line a month to get their stock onto.
He said a recent load of 20 containers was stopped from being loaded at the last minute because the ship had changed its path to transit through Shanghai.
“And, of course, you get the cost of having to pay for the transport company to bring the containers around… and then take them away again.”
Stewart said shipping companies had signalled capacity would free up again, and he could be looking to shift up to 250 tonnes of them a month from June, but he was not holding his breath.
“I get dismayed looking at the pile, and I’m trying to maintain staff and keep them employed but we’re only doing probably about 40 percent of what we’d normally do.”
He had kept staff on by continuing to pick up batteries from garages and smaller players.
He said scrap metal firms were also stockpiling batteries and wanted to know when companies like his would start collecting them, but he could not give that answer yet.
“We’ve just got more batteries in New Zealand than we’re able to export… we’ve got a problem.”
The industry estimates about 12,000 tonnes of used lead acid batteries are sent offshore for recycling each year.
Scott Yoon the general manager of the Auckland-based Upcycle business tells a similar story.
“We have a full warehouse, probably about 500 tonnes of batteries and we have stopped buying batteries now.
“It might get better, but [the problems] will probably last until at least the end of the year,” he said.
“We’ve just got more batteries in New Zealand than we’re able to export… we’ve got a problem.” – Vance Stewart
Jeff Harris, the managing director of Wellington scrap yard and battery export firm Macaulay Metals said shipping companies had tried their best, but there just wasn’t the space.
“When you’re fully loaded up with food products, you can’t go and put dangerous goods cargo next to a container of food for human consumption in case there’s some chance that you get some sort of cross contamination… so everybody’s doing things properly, the shipping companies, they just don’t have enough capacity.”
He said they were still buying batteries, but at a much lower rate than the usual market price.
“It’s a market risk – we don’t know that when we finally get enough space to ship these, that the London Metal Exchange price for lead, which is the primary driver of the battery price, what it will be, it could be half what it is now.”
“The worrying thing is what if we all walk away… then there’s 12,000 tonnes of battery a year that’s got to find a home.”
“It’s quite a substantial problem. We’re not talking about a couple of wheelie bins full of double-A batteries.”
Harris said he was in early talks around chartering a bulk vessel for his companies and other exporters to get their goods straight to Korea.
Meanwhile, Vance Stewart is doing what he can to keep business ticking over. Despite stopping collections from larger scrap yards he still has staff collecting batteries from garages and smaller players, to keep them in a job.
He wants the Government to look at how exporters of hazardous waste could get around the transit-through-China issue, saying that would open up much-needed capacity.
But for now, he said they were taking it day by day. He was hoping to get a small shipment out of Auckland this week
“But… I sort of roll my eyes, I’d like to see them come in and then go, to believe it.”