Bad riddance to good rubbish

John Stansfield at the Waiheke Island transfer station.
John Stansfield at the Waiheke Island transfer station.

John Stansfield is unashamedly a radical who has demonstrated a lifetime commitment to social justice.

This week, the advocacy and campaigns director for Oxfam New Zealand is a keynote speaker at the national conference of Rural Women New Zealand in Hawera, where he will talk on Fair Trade.

In the book, How Communities Heal, Vivian Hutchinson says Stansfield is a thought-leader, with a talent for critical thinking, who can analyse problems, and then shape the solutions that will make a difference.

"And he is a serial social entrepreneur who has had a deep impact on how community organisations are managed in New Zealand and the Pacific, and on how we address a range of issues from problem gambling to waste management."

This column doesn't have the space to cover all Stansfield's activities, but our chief interest here is in his leadership for sustainability and community waste management in his small community of Waiheke Island.

In 1992, Stansfield joined with a group of friends to buy 45 hectares of hilly gorse-covered land on the island.

They established the Orapiu Grove Farm organics partnership, which became an exploration into alternative approaches to land ownership, and how to make a living through sustainable organic farming.

Most of the partners are involved in other occupations, but they all have a home on the farm.

"I came to the green end of things a little later in life. I think when your hair turns grey, then your hands start to turn green.

"One of the drivers behind the farm was to create a place where we could experiment, and try a few things out, learn and practise some alternatives, and it's been pretty rewarding as that," he says.

The main commercial crop is grapes, which produce an award- winning wine under the name of Awaroa. It is so popular that it's often sold out before it's bottled.

There's also a grove of olive trees producing olive oil, and a lavender garden that makes enough money to support one household.

A longer-term plan is to develop an organic cafe on the farm, and create retreat spaces in the native bush for eco-tourists who want to escape from Auckland for a while.

One of the more interesting things on Waiheke Island is its creative and collective approach to waste minimisation and recycling.

Waiheke has strongly embraced the goal of becoming a zero-waste community, with a target of sending zero waste to landfill.

Stansfield is a co-founder of the Waiheke Waste Resource Trust, which leads a vigorous programme of waste and recycling initiatives aimed at local schools, businesses and the wider community.

"On Waiheke Island, we used to have our own local government and we did things pretty much the Waiheke way. Then other people decided that we needed to be compulsorily amalgamated with the Auckland City Council.

"One of the things we lost in this process was our treasured approaches to waste and recycling. Everything just got thrown into the back of compacters.

"We were pretty grumpy about this, because Waiheke is a pretty green place, so we started to organise as a community."

Waiheke residents had some luck when the Local Government Amendment Act No 4 was passed, which said that councils had to have local waste management plans.

So they organised around this opportunity to make their management plan consistent with the values of the community.

The Waste Resource Trust sought the assistance of the Community Business and Environment Centre (CBEC), a Kaitaia-based organisation with established waste management skills, and a commercial venture called Clean Stream Waiheke Ltd was established.

This business tendered for, and was awarded, the waste and recycling contracts on the island for the next seven years.

"I tell poor communities that they should get hold of the rubbish before the rich find out how valuable it is.

"There's so much in rubbish which we should be turning into stuff and jobs.

"What we worked out is that if you want to achieve zero waste, then you have to concentrate on the three Rs.

"The first two involve doing everything you can to reduce and reuse. Recycling is what you do when you have failed to do the first two things.

"The rule of thumb with recycling is that you should never move a product until you have got it to its highest value and its greatest density, and you have extracted all the labour value you can in the place that you are."

The Waiheke community soon embraced these three Rs.

The Waste Resource Trust employed two waste educators who gained a huge level of buy-in from the island's residents.

Waiheke achieved a massive 60 per cent diversion rate from the landfill - much higher than the rest of Auckland city.

With local composting education, the amount of food waste being collected from local households was running at about half that of Auckland city.

Clean Stream ran a demolition yard, and a reuse shop at the transfer station.

The rubbish trucks ran on used vegetable oil collected from local restaurants and converted into biodiesel.

The community- owned business was an important source of jobs - 26 people were employed - and the $1.5 million a year from the rubbish contract was largely redirected back into the Waiheke Island economy.

The trust was also actively pursuing innovations in recycling. The business developed a form of glass crushing that turns broken glass into a useful product. It researched and developed new product processes which can turn low-level plastic waste into fibre boards that can be used as building materials.

The Waste Resource Trust attracted all sorts of volunteering from people whose passion was to create new ideas for how to recycle things.

One year, there was a particularly good harvest from the fruit trees on Waiheke Island, so the trust decided to run preserving classes for the locals, salvaging 4 1/2 tons of jam jars for local people to fill with their preserves.

Alongside all this, the trust also hosts a popular annual festival called Junk to Funk, which has a fashion show of wearable arts and body sculpture created from recycled, reusable and natural materials.

In 2008, the trust became concerned that the contract for recycling on Waiheke was coming up for renewal.

It knew that the community organisation would be facing stiff competition for the contract, especially from Transpacific Industries, the large and powerful Australian company, which controls most of the waste management in New Zealand.

The fight for this contract consumed Stansfield and many Waiheke Island residents over the next two years.

Yet it was ultimately a fight they lost, because in July 2009, the Auckland City Council awarded the contract to Transpacific Industries in the face of dramatic protests from the Waiheke Island community.

At stake was a 10-year $23 million contract for the rubbish and recycling collection on Waiheke, but the loss of the contract also represented a major change in how recycling on the island would be handled.

Instead of households sorting out their own recyclables, they have changed to a co-mingled, collection process, where householders put all their glass, plastic, cardboard and cans into a single bin, from which they are collected and shipped off the island, to be later sorted out by the Visy Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) in Onehunga. The green waste is also shipped off the island, instead of being processed locally as before.

What obviously gets lost here are all the local jobs that come from transforming this waste into useful resources, and it's not as though the $21.9 million MRF facility in Onehunga is replacing those local jobs with a more efficient process and more valuable end product.

Stansfield points out that the debate and struggle over the recycling collection process goes right to the heart of how people usually see waste management.

"One of the big problems is that people tend to see it as an engineering problem, but it's not.

"It's a human behaviour problem, and it requires a community development approach to address it.

"On Waiheke, we knew that people were quite smart, and they could separate out their rubbish at the household level. They will get involved and do the right thing if you give them the tools and the information.

"An engineered approach is one that says that people are really stupid, so we should just give them big bins and build a factory somewhere where the engineering fairies will sort it all out," he says.

Waiheke Island's fight for its local rubbish contract was embraced with the same level of enthusiasm and creativity that it had brought to its vision of being a zero waste community. There was a vigorous campaign of town meetings, letter-writing, local education, songwriting, film- making, marches on Auckland City Council meetings and protest demonstrations.

But in the end, the Auckland City Council made its decision.

"When we lost the contract, emotionally, I was battered. I still think it's quite crooked that we lost. It is certainly not what people on Waiheke wanted. It is certainly not cheaper or safer. It is certainly not more sustainable.

"But the thing that still moves me is the memory of people in the middle of winter walking down to the Waiheke ferry in the early morning, in the dark and in the pouring rain.

"This was our community heading to Auckland to have its say. We had solo mums, local millionaires, home-schooled kids and pensioners marching on city hall for the rights of the jobs of their rubbish collectors. That made me very proud of the community that I live in."

zEdited from How Communities Heal - stories of social innovation and social change by Vivian Hutchinson and the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship.

Taranaki Daily News