Going Gaga for Green in New Zealand

Our family visiting the Te Anau glow worm caves. Pictured top left to right are Amanda Richards, Tessa DeMers, Sandra DeMers, Sara DeMers (author;) Bottom Left to right are Byron Richards, Chris Heald.
Our family visiting the Te Anau glow worm caves. Pictured top left to right are Amanda Richards, Tessa DeMers, Sandra DeMers, Sara DeMers (author;) Bottom Left to right are Byron Richards, Chris Heald.

Over the holidays, I took a trip to New Zealand along with my husband and mother to visit family currently residing on the South Island. The trip was amazing and filled with once-in-a-lifetime wildlife viewings,  amazing sunsets and awe-inspiring hikes. One thing that really made an impression on me, given my affinity for environmental issues, was New Zealand’s green practices.  New Zealand doesn’t try and hide the fact that they are sustainable and proud of it.  A quick review of their 2015 Tourism Strategy includes ways to market sustainability to visitors as well as ways to keep the impact on the environment of visitors to a minimum.  Several souvenirs I brought home included references to sustainability including a tea towel featuring the phrase “Clean Green” next to a map of the country.

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One of three trash cans outside a residence in Timaru as part of the Waste Minimization initiative.

 

Sustainable initiatives are supported by the government through legislation, but enforced by the residents of New Zealand who comply with the need for sustainable efforts and effectively support it through commerce.  One extremely interesting trash practice I witnessed was called “Waste Minimisation” through the Timaru District Council.  Timaru is a city outside of Christchurch, but also the home of my brother-in-law’s parents.  We stayed with them over Christmas and I saw first-hand the 3-bin curbside collection service designed to save the city money from not having to open another landfill.

The waste streams are processed at three council-owned facilities:

  • Compost Facility
  • Materials Recovery facility
  • Redruth Landfill

Our hostess, Janet Richards, shared her thoughts on the system and her motivation to participate:

“It’s great. We already did a certain amount of recycling anyway so we personally found it more convenient. My husband always took aluminium, glass and metal to the recycling center. There used to be huge bins at the supermarkets for glass and old clothes. We have always managed a lot of our green waste by composting to use on the garden. At school the kids can be lazy and we have to be careful to check they are putting waste in the correct bins. One of the teachers takes the food scraps home for her hens. My school also used to have a worm farm for food scraps. All in all its actually more convenient.”

Tires are recycled in this garden and used as planters.

 

Another wonderful practice that I noted over and again is upcycling. Sure, this is nothing new to US residents, but more people participate in this practice in New Zealand because purchasing new items is often cost-prohibitive in this remote part of the world and shipping costs can be exorbitant.  New Zealand boasts healthy online commerce, including sites such as Trade Me, which assist people in their quest to buy or sell.

If you are lucky enough to visit New Zealand, it is easy to understand why everyone would be so motivated to protect the natural environment. Having only been sighted by Europeans in 1642,  this country benefits from being undisturbed by European influence up until 2 centuries ago. New Zealand is filled with pristine landscapes and abundant wildlife that people want to protect.

Smoke from the coal steam engine of the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown.
Smoke from the coal steam engine of the TSS Earnslaw in Queenstown.

Given the popularity and support for green initiatives, I was extremely surprised to find myself watching the steam from a coal-powered engine pollute the otherwise blue skies from deck of the TSS Earnslaw while gliding across the gorgeous Lake Wakatipu on a stunning day. We had booked this trip via a reputable provider and although there was mention of this vessel having an actual steam engine, it never occurred to me that they would be using it. I had naively believed they would be using some other means to propel us across the waters towards the farming station we were going to visit. The steam room was open so that visitors could see the engine operate with exposed coal under the pressure of a constant stream of water. The room was complete with a stoker- a young boy who seemed to be in his teens, the back of his shirt prominently displaying the title, “Stoker” and wearing a gas mask. My husband made fun of me for caring so much, but I couldn’t believe that we were unknowingly supporting this nonsensical practice. After the experience, I did a little more research and found out that this attraction had even received a Bronze Enviro Award from Qualmark. According to Qualmark’s website, this award symbolizes  “Outstanding levels of resource management and actions.” I haven’t been able to identify any specific practices so I can only guess why they received the recognition that they did. I also learned that  the TSS Earnslaw is the only remaining commercial passenger-carrying coal-fired steamship in the southern hemisphere.

Another view of the black smog traveling into the blues skies over Lake Wakatipu.
Another view of the black smog traveling into the blues skies over Lake Wakatipu.

The coal-powered steam ship was a bump in the road on an otherwise delightful day. It did leave me with the idea that even in a place such as New Zealand with wonderful sustainable initiatives, there is always room for growth.  As a global community, we need to hold each other accountable and offer constructive criticism so that we can continue to improve. Despite the TSS Earnslaw’s use of coal,  Americans could learn a lot from our friends on the other side of the world in the southern hemisphere.