This post is part of The Rubbish Guilt-Trip series. Before you read on, we recommend reading the initial post (if you haven’t already), which describes our intention behind this series and the straight-up communication style we will be adopting.
Ah, summer, a time for Kiwis to kick back, relax, eat lots, drink lots, and recharge our batteries out and about and in nature.
In theory this sounds lovely. In practice, this seems to end up pretty badly for the natural environment.
For some reason, we seem to find it really challenging to spend time relaxing in the outdoors without producing a tonne of waste. Why is that? Why is it that New Zealanders produce 30% more waste over the summer holiday period than any other time of year? Why has spending time in nature become synonymous with producing more rubbish – doesn’t this seem counter-intuitive?
Every year we’re hopeful that things will improve and a culture of taking responsibility will emerge. Every year, we are disappointed.
Today was our “here we go again” moment for Summer 2019/2020. We were walking along Oriental Bay in Wellington City at the end of a beautiful, sunny day, and saw this all along the beach:
This time, unfortunately, we lost our rag and blew our tops. Camels’ backs were broken by final plastic straws. So, here we now are… Brace yourselves.
Why is it that right now, as we type this, all along the edge of Oriental Bay (which, incidentally, has one of the highest concentrations of microplastics in the world according to international researchers), bins are overflowing with single-use cups, straws, containers, packets, as well as recyclable items like glass bottles and cans. “No space in the bin? No worries, we’ll just put it next to the bin, that’ll be fine, aye? Not likely it’ll blow in the sea, aye?” Yes, sure, that’ll be fine. Wellington isn’t known for wind or anything like that. Too lazy to carry your glass recycling home even though you managed to get the full bottles to the beach with your big, strong arms? “Oh well, never mind, just shove it in the bin too, at least it’s not plastic! There’s no point in recycling anyway because it all goes to landfill in NZ anyway, right?” No. Wrong.
Why is it that when we visited Kaiteriteri beach at the height of summer in 2018, all the cafes and eateries along the beachfront were giving away takeaway coffee cups and plastic straws, and again, all the bins along the edge of the beach were overflowing and we were picking plastic straws and lids out of the sand? How do people manage to enjoy themselves when surrounded by this kind of mindless hedonism? Isn’t there a moment when people stand back and think that actually this isn’t fun anymore, that being a bystander or active participant in this might actually be slightly nauseating?
Bin or no bin, why do we think that it’s OK to go to beautiful areas and use single-use products in the first place? Why don’t we have an in-built consciousness that we shouldn’t act like the world is a big playground just for us, and that maybe we should take some responsibility for our only home—which also happens to be the only home for every other species on this planet too? Why do we let ourselves get sucked in by narratives like “oh, but it’s compostable” or “oh, but it’s glass not plastic” or “oh, it’s just a one-off”, or “oh, what I do doesn’t make a difference anyway” or “oh, don’t be a girl and act like you care about the environment – it’s only one bloody cup”.
Why does the appearance of the sun make our brains fall out?
Over summer New Zealanders are likely to go places and do things they might not visit or do over the rest of the year, which for some reason has come to mean that making more waste is OK or somehow ‘unavoidable’. If this really is the case it’s because we’ve created permissive waste-producing cultures and gotten used to things that are not sustainable.
For example, why do all our forms of transport in this country give away throwaway serviceware, even the ones that are out at sea, ie boats? And why do we accept this rubbish in droves without thinking twice? When we travel over summer, how many of us actually BYO cups, containers and cutlery so we don’t have to accept these throwaways? How many of us turn food and drink down if we’ve forgotten our reusables or go out of our way to find something that isn’t served in disposables? Why isn’t this more normal?
Why is it that when we visited Tōtaranui campsite in the Abel Tasman national park in summer 2018, the campers were producing a skip bin of rubbish EVERY DAY (mostly discarded camping gear), NOT including recycling? Why didn’t people think twice about where this was going? Why did they feel entitled to throw everything in the skip bins?
To their credit, DOC is totally over this and have started trialling ‘pack in, pack out’ across many of their campsites. Yet, when the campsite bins (including recycling stations) were taken away, there were many outraged/aggrieved online and offline commenters. Where does this petulant sense of entitlement to be wasteful come from? Imagine what our grandparents’ generation would think of us throwing a hissy fit about having to ‘pack in, pack out’.
Not only did some people have that hissy fit, but many made clear just how outraged they were by this governmental insistence to pass back some responsibility by going out of their way to prove that they actually wanted to be babied. For example, at the end of a stay in the DOC campsites in Coromandel over Christmas and New Year 2018/2019 (first year of ‘pack in, pack out’), many campers dumped all their rubbish by a broken waste compactor at an intersection in Colville rather than taking it to the recycling and transfer station just down the road in Coromandel Town, which they physically had to pass to leave the area. Not all campers dumped their commingled waste in Colville, in fact most probably didn’t. But many did, and it was enough to make the locals mad and blame DOC for ‘pack in, pack out’.
And don’t get us started on festivals. Why is it that at the end of Rhythm and Vines every year, and this year at the end of Soundsplash in Raglan, festival goers leave tonnes of camping equipment behind after them? When did single-use tents become a thing and why did we allow ourselves to create a dependency on such a concept? We want to acknowledge that many of these festivals are this year making an extra effort to reduce waste, encouraging festival-goers to BYO cups, bottles and containers. Soundsplash is even offering a rent a tent option! Hopefully festival-goers embrace these invitations – let’s watch this space…
We so often hear semi-racist comments about how people in Asia and Africa need to be ‘educated’ about littering. We reckon people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Right here, right now, we struggle to use rubbish and recycling bins correctly, we can’t seem to grasp the concept that putting rubbish in an overflowing bin on the beachfront might be pretty much the same thing as chucking the rubbish straight into the ocean, and we are unable to make any connection between our overconsumption and our humungous per capita waste footprint (far higher than almost anywhere in Africa and Asia).
In the summertime, when we don’t have to go to work and we’re splashing about in the sea, we can choose not to revert to behaving like children. We can choose not to defer our sense of responsibility to someone else, whoever that ‘someone else’ may be (though it’s certainly not the government because if they try and do something, suddenly there seems to be no issue with people putting the big grown-up pants on and shouting about nanny states).
But perhaps most importantly, when we go to recharge our batteries in the outdoors, maybe we could achieve a deeper sense of relaxation if we chose not to bring with us the chaotic, synthetic lifestyle that causes all this stress in the first place. Going to the beach, taking a walk in a park, tramping and camping are all opportunities to reconnect. Reconnecting with nature means disconnecting from consumption and from bringing inappropriate items to natural environments. It means behaving like guests and with gratitude, not only towards the local people living in the area who tolerate summertime influxes, but towards the natural environment that makes that place what it is. We need to slow down, discern wants from needs, act like stewards, role model ecologically mindful behaviour for our children, act like we respect the places we are visiting and act like we want these precious places to last.
Demonstrating a practical sense of responsibility for the environment is turning out to be a social litmus test for the kind of person we are and the kind of values we hold. As Laura from UYO once said to us:
“I know that if I get in a lift with someone with a reusable cup and the lift stops there’s a high chance that they won’t rob me of my almonds in my pocket, that they’ll turn around if I need to pee in the corner, that we’ll work together, you know? Coz I know they’ve made a decision to every morning remember to take this thing with them… it’s like ‘I don’t want to be part of a problem, I want to be part of a solution.’ So I immediately make an assumption about them.”
Acting with ecological sensibility is no longer a question for the political left or right. It’s an existential matter and as such it’s become a source of intergenerational tension. Movements like flight shaming, while confronting and really challenging for some people, are introducing new social norms about how we perceive environmentally irresponsible choices. If this continues, soon summertime public displays of wastefulness may become a fast-track route to earning yourself a dickhead badge – in our eyes, they already are.
We’re calling on the zero waste community to be loud and proud this summer and to model what we want the new normal to be. For us, the new normal looks like:
In the zero waste community we know what to do – let’s model behaviour befitting of a species that intends to continue living on this planet. Let’s not be dickheads. Let’s show the country we can have a great summer, without making a massive mess. And don’t worry about being obnoxious – it’ll never get close to the obnoxiousness of trash strewn across a beach.