Since our decision in July this year to continue The Rubbish Trip beyond its initial one-year timeframe, we’ve been considering how to do this car-free. On the first Sunday of October 2018 we finally took the plunge, ditching “Fossy the Foss” and opting to continue The Rubbish Trip on foot, using public transport and hitch-hiking. For logistical reasons, going car-less has also meant forgoing our bikes, a major (probably costly) implication and the primary reason we dragged our heels over this for so long.
So, on Sunday we left Palmerston North on a bus, with far too many bags, slightly anxious we’d made a terrible mistake. The following day, the IPCC released its deeply alarming report about the depth of change we all need to make, and rapidly, to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees celcius. We interpreted this as timely confirmation that, despite the transitory discomfort, we made the right decision.
Why are we doing this to ourselves?
Fundamentally, we’re not car people. The Rubbish Trip was the first time we’ve ever owned a car (apart from a brief stint several years ago, lasting one week because the car was stolen – again, an occurrence we interpreted as evidence that car ownership was the wrong decision at that time). Hannah is a dunce and doesn’t even know how to drive. We’ve both spent most of our adult lives in Wellington City where, frankly, having a car seems more trouble than it’s worth for the average able-bodied person. We’re also really lucky that our life circumstances have never dictated that we “needed” a car. We’ve always made the most of this good fortune by embracing cycling, while also finding fun workarounds for situations where others might presume car ownership was required (for example, Liam got a child-carrying trailer for his bike so he could cycle his drum kit to gigs and rehearsals around Wellington…!)
When we decided to do The Rubbish Trip, we wanted to do it on bikes. However, there’s no way we were going to cycle long distances on State Highways. We’re not that brave, plus our parents would probably have staged an intervention. Given that flying wasn’t going to feature for obvious environmental reasons, we settled on a compromise: we would get the most energy efficient car possible, within our budget, to take us between main centres only, with a bike rack for our bikes. Once we arrived, we’d park the car and not move it until the time came for us to go on to the next main centre. In the intervening time, we would cycle.
And so it was that we embarked on The Rubbish Trip in a Honda Fit (probably costing us valuable street cred in many parts of the country where vehicle size is a measure of your credibility).
Logistically, the method worked well…
Contrary to popular belief (a belief we infer from New Zealanders’ apparent determination to drive everywhere), most New Zealand towns and cities are easy to cycle around —at the very least, they are if you’re able-bodied, in your 20s, and childless: they’re mostly flat, reasonably compact, with sufficiently wide roads. We managed to complete virtually all of the research for our regional shopping guides on bikes, including major cities like Auckland and Christchurch. Yes, for those two cities it was 2-3 solid weeks of cycling and research, but still, doable. In fact, it probably would have taken just as long, cost much more, and been pretty unpleasant in a car. The Wellington Region was awesome because there are trains you can take bikes on (!) and Hawkes Bay was also a dream because of its amazing cycleways.
People’s reactions to our commitment not to drive have been illuminating:
- Our decision to cycle everywhere within towns/cities, despite having a car, was generally greeted with bemusement, borderline horror or undue awe. Many people couldn’t believe we cycled to our talks with all our demo materials and food (even though the stuff
fit quite easily in our panniers, and even though the distance cycled was usually only 10-20 minutes on flat-as-a-pancake roads). Heads would turn when we arrived at markets to run stalls on our bikes, pulling our demo materials out of our panniers. Our hosts would say “you aren’t cycling are you?” when we set off in the morning to do our research for our shopping guides. Staff at schools would exclaim when we arrived on bikes, probably presuming it was some sort of novelty we whipped out just for the kids…
- People often equated the fact we had a car with a willingness to drive it. However, we had promised ourselves, when acquiring the car for The Rubbish Trip that we would not drive it except for moving between main centres. This needed constant explaining, particularly when organising accommodation or scheduling speaking itineraries. We found it hard/awkward saying things like “yes, we have a car” but “no, we can’t stay here because it’s not within cycling distance of the town”. Or “yes, we have a car” but “we aren’t going to visit all these schools in one day because there isn’t enough time for us to cycle between them”. Occasionally we relented and drove in order to avoid coming across as ungrateful/making a hassle, but we never felt good about this.
- People frequently assumed that we had a campervan. It seems logical to get a van that you can sleep in if you intend to run a nationwide travelling zero waste roadshow in New Zealand. However, we very consciously decided against this because we wanted the most energy efficient vehicle possible. This meant a small car, not a van. This is one of the reasons why we rely on full-time couchsurfing. The hundreds of incredibly generous people who have hosted us throughout the trip have not only allowed us to run the project on a very small budget, they’ve also helped us realise our goal of reducing The Rubbish Trip’s carbon footprint.
- “The Greater Good” is too often used to justify environmental messaging being delivered in an unsustainable way. We turned down some opportunities or reduced the number of scheduled talks (meaning some schools/communities/businesses missed out) because they would have involved extra driving. Some communities have had to wait months for us to come and speak because we won’t take an airplane to get there faster. Interestingly, we have occasionally had push back about this approach, with people saying things like “surely the impact of you getting your message out there offsets the carbon you’d release by driving/flying”. Personally, we don’t buy this for the following reasons:
- It relies on too many assumptions that are very difficult to measure/prove and too many variables that cannot be predicted at the time of making that statement.
- From the planet’s perspective, greenhouse gases are greenhouse gases regardless of the reasons for their emission – molecules of CO2 don’t come attached with little labels that say “I was emitted for the purposes of sustainability” and then get counted less at the carbon footprint bank.
- It’s too easy for this way of thinking to become habitual, obstructing the creativity needed to constantly challenge oneself to find ways of delivering a message while also mitigating one’s overall environmental impact.
- It presumes an elevated sense of one’s own importance in delivering a message that others can (and often do) deliver too (albeit in their own way). Yes, The Rubbish Trip may well inspire some people to change their lives in a way that reduces stress on our planet, and certainly we do what we can to share our presentations and we DO travel to do this. However, others around the country share zero waste knowledge too; there isn’t always a pressing need for us in areas where locals do just as good (or better) a job.
If the car/bike combo worked so well, why change?
The car/bike method certainly kept The Rubbish Trip’s carbon footprint lower than it might have been. In the 15 months between 1 July 2017 and 7 October 2018 (during which time we’ve been on The Rubbish Trip fulltime, travelling the entire country—from Cape Rēinga through to Stewart Island), we drove 16,828km (slightly more than the annual distance driven by the average male in New Zealand of 12,000km). In a Honda Fit with a 1300cc engine, this amounts to roughly 3.37 tonnes of CO2, 1.65-ish tonnes each (based on the Catalyst ACE carbon calculator) – which isn’t terrible.
On the other hand, it’s a lot of CO2 emissions that exist purely because we decided to take a ‘sustainability’ message around New Zealand. The irony is not lost on us. Nor was it lost on many of the school children we spoke to, who often questioned our use of a petrol vehicle.
And it’s not just about carbon emissions… after a year of driving we’ve realised that car ownership often contradicts the ethos of low-waste living. We learnt pretty fast that cars not only rely on fossil fuels, they’re also wasteful:
- The model of everyone owning their own car over-duplicates resources. Often, opting for no car or using/developing car share systems, would work just fine, would reduce the overall number of cars in a community, maximise the efficiency of cars in the system and reduce personal costs.
- Each individual car produces waste over its lifetime. All car tyres shed when in use, with the bits that wear off ending up on the roads and then inevitably flushed into ecosystems and waterways (meaning every time we choose to go somewhere without driving, we reduce waste). We’ve found car maintenance a waste nightmare. On our trip we’ve had to have various parts (and tyres) replaced. At times we’ve opted not to have work done (or to spend more) to reduce the waste in the process, and other times we’ve had to take old bits of our car home with us in the hope we can repurpose them because otherwise the workshop would just landfill them…
And that goes for electric vehicles too. Many people have suggested we seek sponsorship for an electric vehicle (otherwise outside our budget). We did half-heartedly try this for our South Island tour, but it wasn’t successful. When making our recent decision about whether to go car-free, whether the car might be electric or not wasn’t really a game changer. For us, the real question was, do we need a car at all? Just like all ‘stuff’, all cars have an impact and generate waste in the production, transportation, use, maintenance and disposal phases. Our view is that, right now, we don’t need a car, and so no car was the least impactful option.
So what will we do instead?
We’re going to hitch-hike or catch buses between main centres. So, if you see us and if we’re going in your direction, feel free to pick us up! In cities, we’ll walk, or hopefully borrow bikes. From February 2019, we’re slowing down the pace of the trip so we travel less.
A car-less Rubbish Trip may well cost more and it’ll probably be more ‘inconvenient’, but that’s the balance we’ve decided to strike. The cost and inconvenience of course relate to New Zealand’s car-centrism and our expensive, totally inadequate public transport system. Public transport in major urban areas is generally OK (though expensive) but getting between towns is diabolical and often impossible. The inertia around changing this reflects poorly on our country’s commitment to addressing climate change. But it’s also an equity issue. Cars are not just environmentally problematic, they’re also very expensive – something we underappreciated having never owned a car before! Apart from rising fuel costs, there’s also the cost of the car itself, the registration, the WOF, the inevitable maintenance, the insurance, and so on. The fact New Zealand lacks a proper, comprehensive, affordable public transport system shoehorns many people towards either owning a car they can ill-afford or facing no transport options at all. This is just unacceptable.
Our decision is ours to own!
We want to stress that, of course, everyone’s life circumstances differ; we can only speak for ourselves. Everyone will have their own way that they justify decisions that cause their environmental footprint to enlarge. Ultimately it’s up to each person to make peace with that. What we’re saying here is that we could not make peace with continuing The Rubbish Trip if it meant we would continue to drive. This doesn’t mean that we won’t be reliant on fossil fuels to get around – hitch-hiking and public transport still use fossil fuels. However, it’ll be one less vehicle on the road.