I want to tell you a story about a place, on a long island, on a narrow piece of land between two oceans. It’s a wet, swampy place, with little streams meandering through it, flowing from underground springs and out to the two harbours. The different waters mix and mingle in this place, and out of this wetland, life is generated in abundance. Freshwater fish and eels thrive there, travelling along the streams and across vast oceans to breed. Wetland plants and trees grow along the banks of the streams and merge with the forests inland, providing food for the insects, which in turn provides food for the fish.
At one time, the Earth’s energies become very active in this place and the land spews forth fire, lava, rocks and ash, pushing mountains upwards and raining debris down on the surrounding area.
After a time, this debris creates rich and fertile soil and allows plants and animals to thrive. Birds flock to this area from all over the world, especially to the harbours, which provide an abundance of food. The first people are drawn from across the ocean to settle in this place, because of the availability of fresh food, fertile soil for growing crops, and proximity to transportation networks. The people see themselves as descendants of the land, which means that they care for it and use only what they need for survival. When they’ve finished with something, it is returned to the land, where it creates new life. Nothing is wasted.
Fast forward to 2020, after 200 years of colonization, industrialization and globalization, and the picture couldn’t be more different. Auckland Council tells us that, as a city, we create a rugby field full of waste every week. Most of it ends up in a giant hole in the ground, just outside of our city, where it will lie forever, creating toxic waste for future generations to deal with. Some of it gets shipped offshore to other countries, where it creates problems for other people. More is pumped out into our harbor, disrupting the marine ecosystem. How did we get so far from the original state of this land, and how can we change this picture?
These are questions that Talking Rubbish, ME Family Services, has been exploring since we started six years ago, with a contract from Auckland Council to provide waste education and support for the Māngere/Ōtāhuhu communities to reduce the amount of waste we’re creating. We started out by seeing what was already happening in our area, who was already addressing this issue, and finding ways to tell these stories so more people could hear about them.
We found some real champions in our midst- community gardeners encouraging local food production, families picking up stuff from the inorganic collection, gleaning the metal and fixing up electrical goods, people repurposing broken furniture and bikes and making new things out of them, people cleaning up our streams, others teaching our children how to care for our Earth, and many more. We found that our communities can be extremely resourceful with what we have and innovative in finding new ways of doing things, drawing on the wisdom that’s been handed down through our families for generations.
Over the past six years, we’ve tried to inspire others in our communities with these stories, and have run hundreds of workshops to encourage people to reduce, reuse and recycle at home, at work and in the groups and organisations they connect with. We’ve worked with groups, organisations, businesses and event organisers across our community, delving into bins, helping people find ways to reduce the waste they’re producing and trying to come up with local solutions for dealing with it once it’s made.
We’ve also been active in advocating for Government to do things like banning plastic bags and creating product stewardship schemes, so that we can stop some of this waste coming into our community in the first place.
During this time, we’ve been developing and honing our vision of what a Zero Waste Māngere /Ōtāhuhu might look like, drawing on the unique spirit of this area. At ME Family Services on Ferguson St in Māngere East, we’ve been developing a zero waste hub to test out and demonstrate what’s possible on a neighbourhood scale. Te Puna Oranga; our community garden space, where we’re composting all our food and paper waste, growing and cooking food, reusing neighbourhood rubbish to create garden spaces and structures and providing tools and support for our community to make things for their own spaces. The Recovery Room; where we’re giving our community opportunities to trade their time, skills and resources with each other.
To significantly increase the potential of our community to once again be able to deal with its own waste, we’re working towards having a Community Recycling Centre in our area, a community-owned space where we can gather our waste and find new uses for it, create businesses from it and grow our local economy. We don’t yet have a space, or funding, but thanks to a Local Board grant we’ve been building the foundations of this plan by developing a network of groups, organisations and businesses that are prepared to trade resources, rather than throw stuff away or buy new stuff. We’ve been building a database of what people are throwing away and what people need, so we can connect them up.
Of course, we’re in a time of significant disruption, and we don’t yet know what impact it’s going to have on our projects and plans. Many local businesses may not be able to continue operating in the future. Our communities will suffer disproportionately as a result of high unemployment and continued housing issues.
However, this time may also present new opportunities. People may be more open to learning how to grow their own food and to utilize the produce that’s available locally. There may be more interest in finding ways to be resourceful with what we have rather than throwing away and buying new stuff from overseas. New spaces may become available for our community to utilize for resource recovery and microbusiness.
Our hope is that, as a community, we can use this time of disruption to reflect on how we’re doing things, what’s working, what’s not working, and what kind of community we would like to be in the future. We truly believe that the resources, skills and knowledge are already here, and that we just need to look around and see with new eyes.
As we see from the story I shared at the beginning of this presentation, Māngere/Ōtāhuhu is a wetland area, a place where things gather, mix and mingle and where new life arises. It’s also a place where explosive energy lies dormant, waiting for its chance to break out. It’s a fertile place. Our question at this time is how could we work with the spirit of this land to create new systems and processes for reducing, reusing and recycling our waste? A system where all waste is valued as a resource that can be used to create something new. A system where, once again, nothing is wasted.