Are your brake pads polluting Kiwi waterways?

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Words: Matthew Hansen
22 Jun 2021

One of the issues that takes the shine off New Zealand’s ‘clean and green’ reputation somewhat is the state of national waterways. According to several sources, the brake pads on your car might have something to do with this.

Numerous environmental groups both regional and national have listed the amount of copper sediment created by brake discs in cars as being a leading cause of copper pollution in local waterways, with Sustainable Business Network CEO Rachel Brown speaking about the issue earlier today.

“There’s a lot of heavy metals that sit in our cars, and we tend to use our cars a lot. So that’s been part of our focus,” she said earlier today, speaking on Newstalk ZB.

“Sediment just sits in the harbour, and it makes that regeneration of fish stocks and mussels really slow. So we really need to start looking at what’s happening on land. [...] There’s also a lot of things we can do around our heavy metal contamination. We do a lot of work with our network [of businesses] around this,” she said.

“Cars are very polluting. Brake pad linings — every time you brake copper comes off your wheel and down onto the road. When it rains, it gets flushed out to sea. Copper is really toxic, so that gets into our food system.”

Brown says that driving less is one way to reduce the amount of copper pollution created by brake pads, and another is for consumers to request for copper-free pads in their next replacement. Brown also says that Sustainable Business is in talks with ministers over banning the sale of copper brake pads altogether.

“When we do have to upgrade our brake pads, [we can] buy low copper brake pads. Most people don’t know it’s an option. They do exist, you just need to ask for them because they’re not standard yet.

“We are talking to our ministers, and minister [David] Parker about the potential to ban those copper brake pads. We’re an island nation, we really don’t need them anymore. So why don’t we just get rid of them — stop using them and have [only] low-copper brake pads or no-copper brake pads.”

In our research, we found that very few mainstream brake manufacturers still produce copper-heavy brake pads. Therefore, it’s most likely that any copper pollution is stemming from aging pads fitted to older cars on the national fleet, or comes from heavy duty pads fitted to large commercial vehicles.

In America, the amount of copper in brake pads has already been mandated to be no more than five per cent. The law first came into consideration in the 1990s due to the amount of copper sediment reportedly found in San Francisco Bay. The law was first passed in 2010, and comes into effect in different years, depending on the state.

A lot of North American brake pad manufacturers have already altered their processes to meet these requirements. This includes Nucap Industries in Canada, who supply pads to the likes of General Motors and Ford for OEM usage, as well as the likes of Brembo for aftermarket applications. Nucap only uses one metal in its brakes; pickled and oiled steel.

It’s not known how many cars in New Zealand still utilise brakes with a high percentage of copper. While Brown said that low- and no-copper pads “aren’t standard” yet, it appears that they are the standard option for people wanting to buy pads. One supplier told NZ Autocar that their current brake pad range features almost no copper at all.

According to the Auckland Council, the environmental response criteria status of 20 waterway sites it monitored between 1999 and 2019 shows that the amount of sites heavily impacted by copper is declining. Six of the sites indicated a ‘red’ high level of copper in 1999, compared to just one in 2019. Eight sites had an ‘amber’ rating, indicating some elevations in copper sediment detection. And 11 sites returned a low ‘green’ rating for copper, compared to eight in 1999.

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