By Gord Stewart
‘How to sort NZ’s plastic mess’ was the title of a recent New Zealand Herald article. A partial answer apparently is packaging that doesn’t need to be discarded.
But plastic is just one part of our growing waste problem, and recycling is only a partial answer to it.
The real answer, of course, is to not generate the waste in the first place. Enter The Rubbish Trip, a roaming zero waste roadshow with a heartfelt message and practical information on the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ of reducing household rubbish.
The Rubbish Trip – billed as ‘Two no-waste nomads talk trash with people’ – entered our lives early last year in the form of Hannah Blumhardt and Liam Prince.
Our younger son, Charlie, rang me one day and said his friends Liam and Hannah were doing this trip around New Zealand and coming through our way. “Could they stay with you and Mum?” he asked, and then suggested, “Maybe they could do a talk for your local Transition Towns group?”
“Of course they can and what a good idea,” was my immediate reply. They gave an inspiring presentation at our group’s winter social and returned a few months later for two sessions at the local college. They were here again more recently for a public forum hosted by our local council. The council aims to invite them back every year.
Hannah and Liam have already been recognised for their efforts. Among other distinctions, they received a commendation in the ‘Communicating for Change’ category of the 2018 NZ Sustainable Business Network Awards.
They intended The Rubbish Trip to be a one-year adventure ending last July, but requests keep coming in. They have travelled from town to town in a small, overloaded car with a dodgy bike rack carrying their two wheelers. To reduce their carbon emissions while travelling to spread the sustainability message, they sold their car – Fossy the Foss – in October. They now hitchhike and take the bus, then walk or, hopefully, borrow some bikes on arrival.
They are a marvel and an inspiration and a joy really. I told them if their parents get tired of them we will adopt them in a minute. I also suggested when Jacinda tires of the role, Hannah should be prime minister. Liam would be a fitting environment minister. (With their modest and unassuming way, it takes some doing to learn Hannah has degrees in law, and history and international relations, and Liam is a jazz musician with a master’s degree in his field.)
But now to the point and the message. Their presentation nicely covers the so-called ‘waste hierarchy’ – or The 6 R’s, namely: refuse, replace, reduce, reuse, recycle and rot.
Refuse is a crucial first option (reduce is important too). Do we really need it? How is it packaged? These are tough actions. “Difficult,” says Liam, “because it’s going against the tide of consumerism.”
Then we should replace wherever we can, swapping wasteful items for less wasteful ones – choosing a bamboo toothbrush over a plastic one is a simple example. Next comes reuse. Buying second-hand is an obvious example. Employing used products in DIY projects is another.
Only now do we get to recycle. It is crucial, of course, but championing it in waste reduction efforts “only serves to legitimise disposability,” says Hannah.
Rot comes last. In an ideal world, a hundred percent of what’s left over would go back to the land without degradation or harm.
Their presentation is entertaining and full of practical steps one can take. Their website (see Resources & Sources) is chock full of ideas and resources. Be sure to look for their popular Regional Zero Waste Shopping Guides.
Hannah and Liam don’t pretend to have all the answers and they graciously acknowledge those who have inspired them, including Matthew Luxon and Waveney Warth who started their own rubbish free journey in 2008. In their travels they reach out to learn from experienced veterans of the movement, including the likes of zero waste guru Warren Snow.
Momentum is building. Leadership has been shown, for example, by large retailers voluntarily removing single-use plastic bags as a free service at checkout counters. This has been followed by the legislative phase out of single-use plastic shopping bags nationwide.
The Government’s move to better support the processing of recovered materials and an expansion of the waste disposal levy to all landfills will help. And we can only hope, with an enlightened Government now in place, that it won’t be long before we have a cash-for-trash bottle deposit scheme in place.
As Hannah says, “Throwing rubbish ‘out’ doesn’t work for the planet because there is no ‘out’.”
*Gord Stewart is an environmental sustainability consultant. He does project work for government, industry, and non-profits.