Camping/Holidaying with Less Waste: Part 1: Camping Gear

Camping/Holidaying with Less Waste: Part 1: Camping Gear

*** UPDATE: Since writing this post, Totaranui, as well as other major DOC campsites around the country, particularly in Coromandel, have gone Pack In, Pack Out (with the provision of composting bins and worm farms for food scraps). We STRONGLY support this move for the reasons outlined in this post. Of course, Pack In, Pack Out doesn’t change the need for waste minimising behaviour from campers, meaning the bulk of this post remains relevant. ***

In January 2018 we did a 4 day tramping trip along the Abel Tasman National Park coastal track, as we’d been invited to do a talk about Zero Waste Camping at Totaranui campsite – the park’s main campsite.

So, we had to sort out how we would manage 4 days hiking without producing rubbish (not to mention what we were going to tell the campers at our talk). As always, we based our talk on our own personal experience of walking the walk (metaphorically, but also literally in this case). If you’d like to read our tips and tricks for camping with less waste, check out Part 2 of this post. If you want Christmas tips as well as Summer Holiday tips, check out this post we wrote for Sustainability Trust’s ‘Ask an Expert’ blog. 

Why consider reducing waste when camping, tramping and holidaying?

On average, New Zealanders produce 30% more rubbish over the summer holiday period than other times of year. The reasons for this are manifold, including the consumerist horror story that Christmas has become, and a tendency to favour convenient, packaged items when we are moving around and in unfamiliar territory. Furthermore, when we’re on holiday, wanting to have fun and be care-free, we can be averse to being prepared and organised because this involves brain space and aforethought, which we associate with the hideous world of work, not holidays – boo, go away you zero waste, party-pooping squares, let me have my two-minute noodles, muesli bars and Uncle Ben rice packs!

The irony is that over the summer holidays, New Zealanders unwind amidst our natural environment – we visit beaches, spend time in the outdoors, go to parks, conservation land, rivers and other campsites. These sites of natural beauty allow us to recharge our batteries, rejuvenate and de-stress. But they’re also wilderness areas that cannot cope with the lifestyles we’ve become used to in our stressful, urban contexts. Rather than adapting to the natural context of these areas, we impose upon them our throwaway, convenience, fast-paced mentality. We bring shoddy camping and recreational equipment, convenient, packaged foods, travel-sized toiletries and single-serve alcoholic beverages, and we expect takeaway, disposable packaging to be available on tap. And… the sum total is that we end up producing 30% more waste to enjoy exactly the kinds of places that we spoil with this wasteful mindset.

OK, but is it really so bad at places like Totaranui?

While visiting the campsite, we went with staff to view the recycling and rubbish station there. Totaranui’s recycling station is pretty awesome. Glass is sorted into different colours (many different councils don’t even do this for kerbside recycling, so it’s great to see a campsite doing this properly), and plastics, cans, paper and cardboard go into different recycling bins. On the whole, the recycling station seemed pretty well used by campers. While it was alarming to see how much packaging people go through, at least much of it was going to be repurposed. So, so far so good.

However, despite Totaranui’s excellent recycling station, over the peak season the campsite still churns through an entire skip bin of rubbish, per day. What?! How could that much waste be left over once people have sorted their recyclables?

Well, here’s what we learnt on the morning we went to observe what was going on. It was 10am, the skip bin had already been emptied an hour before. By the time we got there, the first layer of rubbish had already started to accumulate. This mostly constituted filled-up plastic shopping bags, through which you could see numerous recyclables. Clearly, many people were choosing to chuck out stuff that they could have easily taken five minutes to sort at the recycling station, one pace from the skip bin. However, TOO HARD, I’M ON HOLIDAY. Fair enough…?

However, this wasn’t really the crux of it. Staff had already told us what the real skip-filling culprit was, but we hadn’t truly believed it. It wasn’t until we stood there, at 10am that resplendent sunny morning, staring out to the moana just ten steps away that it hit home. In 15 minutes we saw the following things get dumped in the skip bin:

  • Two foldable camping chairs
  • A large, cloth/tarpaulin floor cover
  • An inflatable camping mattress
  • A tent fly
  • A plastic bucket
  • “Reusable” cloth shopping bags full of rubbish, food and recyclables.

And this is it; by the end of the day, just like the day before and the days following, the skip bin would be filled with mountains of camping and recreational equipment. Some probably still usable, some maybe broken but still fixable, some probably originally of such poor quality that it’s surprising it lasted the camping season at all. At Totaranui, all this biffed stuff gets trucked to the Takaka transfer station where it gets compacted and then transported still further to York Valley landfill near Nelson, where it will remain in the bowels of the earth for centuries to come.

As one Totaranui staff member said to us, the situation is “diabolical”.

We agree. As we stood there, watching this happen, watching adults, children and families dump their camping crap into the skip bin and walk off, we had one of those moments (which we have so rarely on The Rubbish Trip) where we lose a little bit of hope.

It’s worth remembering that Totaranui is one of hundreds of campsites across New Zealand (though, of course, not all have skip bins on-site). It’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount of leisure and recreational equipment that gets chucked out, especially when you consider what goes into people’s kerbside rubbish. If this is what’s going to landfill just from Totaranui, we’re clearly staring into the face of a pretty ugly beast.

When it comes to camping/holiday waste, we’ve noted how quickly freedom campers get publically singled out, without much discussion about the mountains of camping equipment Kiwis purchase and send to landfill every week over summer, which probably eclipses the soiled toilet paper and human waste found in some parts of New Zealand (as disgusting, disrespectful and despicable as this is). Where are the outraged media reports about the skip bins of pointless waste we send to landfill every day? We spy some double standards going on here.

If we want to do better, we need to work out how to decouple enjoyment and wastefulness. The Rubbish Trip has some suggestions for avoiding sending so much camping and leisure equipment to landfill – you might do too, so please feel free to add to this list by commenting below.

1) Don’t give up on your broken equipment straight away because it may be fixable.

  • See if your local resource and recovery centre wants it.
  • Do some googling to find out if you can fix it yourself (it may not be hard!).
  • Can you find someone near you that specialises in fixing that piece of equipment?
  • Does your local council/community centre/church run a Repair Café where you can bring your broken stuff to be looked at (and hopefully fixed!) by a skilled volunteer? If not, ask if they might consider running one – many councils and community centres are doing this now, so there are lots of models to replicate!

2) Avoid buying cheap, low-quality, brand new camping and recreational equipment from places like The Warehouse (the kind of stuff that’s likely to break while you’re on holiday and which is of such low quality that it’s probably not reparable). If you can afford to buy good quality stuff, don’t be stingy, just spend the extra money (but opt for secondhand wherever possible rather than new). In the long-term you’ll save money and hassle not having to replace stuff all the time. However, getting proper, good quality stuff doesn’t have to be expensive, there are creative workarounds. For example:

  • Get nice stuff second-hand through avenues like TradeMe. You may well spend less (or only slightly more) than you would at a place like The Warehouse, but you’ll reduce the demand for the creation of brand new items, and you’ll probably be getting a better quality item that’s already stood the test of time.
  • See if you can borrow equipment from friends, family or neighbours who already have stuff, rather than buying yourself one too. Perhaps you can lend out something you have that they don’t have in return.
  • Go in with a group of friends/family to buy a better quality item that you can share amongst you.
  • Hire equipment rather than buying it – you’ll have less stuff building up in your shed/garage/cupboard in between holidays, and the stuff you hire is less likely to break because hire companies invest in proper things that last longer (they don’t want to be paying to replace things every five seconds).
  • Check out your local community centre or church to see if you can borrow equipment through a sharing/library system. If your local centre doesn’t do this already, ask them if they’ll start! The Common Unity Project in Epuni, for example, has been developing a system like this – so point your local community centre to this model to see if they’d like to try it too (you never know what little seed you might sow!)

3) Reassess what camping and recreational equipment you really need. For example, maybe a tent and yoga mat is enough, without the gazebo, camping chairs, beanbags and inflatable mattress.

4) Think about alternatives to items you would otherwise buy. Children’s holiday toys are a great case study. For example:

  • Rather than getting your children inflatable sea donuts and plastic sand toys, can you play a game like “let’s find the best piece of drift wood that looks like a spade?” and together search for the item in the natural environment, to use as the toy once it’s been found.
  • Can you use glass jars instead of plastic sand buckets (which you then vigilantly remember to take home with you)?
  • Can you upcycle old garden tools (that aren’t rusty, tetanus risks) instead of brand new plastic items? What about arranging stones, driftwood and leaves on the beach to create fortresses and other imaginary worlds?

5) If, after all of this your camping equipment breaks while you’re only holiday, take it home with you; if you managed to bring it into the campsite, you can take it out. DOC is already resource-deprived and shouldn’t have to pay to dump your rubbish for you.

Of course, you don’t need to do everything in this list, but even if just one of these points sounds doable, you’ll be sure to reduce your impact. Also, take advantage of the fact that you can reduce your waste AND save money in the long run. Both your wallet and the planet will thank you for it!

8 thoughts on “Camping/Holidaying with Less Waste: Part 1: Camping Gear”

  • Wow that was an insightful read!!

    Incidentally, we recently had 2 family weekends away to different parts of the Waikato in self contained accommodation. Where there was no recycling, we took all our waste/recycling home to deal with there, including separating out food waste to go to our compost bins at home. At the second location, where kerbside collections were available, we sorted and still took home all our food waste for composting – it was surprising/eye-opening to see the volumes of food wastage that we ended up bringing home in the end!

    • Hi Leah, it’s great to hear that you sort your recycling and food waste while travelling and then take it home to compost/recycle – this is what we suggest in Part 2 of this post for when people go places where there are inadequate/non-existent recycling or composting facilities. We think that campsites/hotels/hostels/accommodation should all have proper recycling and compost facilities, but it’s not always the case, unfortunately. So it’s good to be prepared to carry this stuff back home with you (or even, drop off the recyclables at the local recycling centre on your way home!)

  • Hi Liam & Hannah, great insights. I think your point number 5 is the way to go, people should be responsible for their own waste…if they took it there they have room to take it away. Surely by the camp ground providing a skip they are perpetuating the problem. Often when we are in ‘holiday mode’ we go oh well can’t be bothered to fix it or take it home but maybe if campers were made to take broken stuff away just maybe when they take their sunnies off they will think it’s worth h the bother of mending the item….here’s hoping!!!

    • Hi Rebekah, We agree that people should be encouraged to take their stuff (and their rubbish) out with them, and that Totaranui should probably not have a skip bin on-site (though lots of campers stay at the site for weeks over summer period so pack in/pack out doesn’t work quite so well for certain kinds of rubbish over long stretches of time – though this comment wouldn’t apply to camping waste).

      However, the post is not so much focused on the problem of people leaving waste at the campsite specifically. Rather, we used Totaranui as a window into the world of what kinds of waste might result from camping (it’s quite a good example because you have a high concentration of campers in one place, all sharing the one bin, so you get to see the kinds of waste that campers might produce, that you might not otherwise see if everyone was taking their rubbish home with them). In this case, it showed that people throw away a lot of broken camping equipment at a scale that we, personally, had not imagined. Pack in/pack out might reduce the waste that Totaranui gets left with, but it doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of the waste being produced and thrown out by someone (though, perhaps once people get home, they might throw things less freely, as you suggest) – rather, the post seeks to highlight the potential issue of camping waste, and suggest alternatives for how people might reduce that waste stream in the first place.

  • Hi there, what a wonderful and timely find of your website. We are currently going Pack In Pack Out in the 5 Northern Coromandel Dept of Conservation campgrounds. We too have had the same issues as Totaranui. The cost of dealing with waste here is horrendous, due to the isolation and distances that trucks have to travel. We decided that rather than take us responsibility for our campers waste, we would put the responsibility back on the campers to look after their own waste. So Pack In Pack Out it is. We did conclude that food waste was going to be a huge issue for summer campers so we are setting up worm farms, bokashi bins and composting so that campers are not having to deal with their food waste over a long period. This will help reduce smells, vermin and issues with ducks and seagulls getting into waste bags etc. Would I be able to direct campers to these two pages as a resource to help them get organised for the summer camping expedition? Also if you are somewhere around the Coromandel over the 18-19 summer it would be awesome to host you at our campgrounds to talk and demonstrate ideas for our campers. We are looking to deliver educational talks and demos around waste minimisation and it’s effect on our environment. Again awesome website! Thank you.

  • Hiya Alison, Thanks for sharing your story and all the actions you are taking to reduce your footprint in NZ! The fact you are travelling with compost and using the sharewaste app is really awesome – it’d be great for you to spread this knowledge to other travellers too when you meet them on your trip, as well as tips for travelling less wastefully. We wish we had more of a chance to spend time with travellers in NZ and to talk about these things 🙂 All the best and maybe we’ll cross paths with you on our trip too! Hannah and Liam

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