Photo: Qiane Matata-Sipu

Parakore: how Māori business is embracing the zero waste movement

Our landfills are approaching capacity and our country is lacking the necessary infrastructure to support reuse, recycle and composting programmes. Two Māori businesses are helping create waste solutions by championing product stewardship. 

Whether you are reading this from your computer at your desk, or your phone on-the-go, stop and look around your immediate space. What is going to happen to all that ‘stuff’ around you once you no longer need to use it? Those papers you’ve printed off, the packaging and utensils from lunch, your coffee cup, the ring binder, the clips in your hair, phone in your hand, even those swanky new shoes on your feet.

For many, the answer will be: “I’ll throw it away”. But where is ‘away’?

In one week, the Auckland region generates enough rubbish to fill a rugby field, piled up two stories high. There are close to 400 closed landfills across the city, some under our regional parks and playgrounds, others illegally placed in unrecorded areas. And our open landfills are approaching capacity.

Move into other areas of your home or office and you will find materials that will outlive you and your great grandchildren.

“Polystyrene doesn’t break down completely,” shares Koia Teinakore as he discusses product, food and meat packaging. “It might end up in little pieces, but it won’t completely dissolve. One nappy will take 500 years to decompose, and wipes are becoming even more of a problem as companies market them as ‘flushable’, causing massive issues in our waterways.

“The first plastic toy I ever had as a kid will still be alive in the landfill today,” he adds. Highlighting that by 2050, 80% of sea life, including the fish we eat, will have plastic inside them.

Koia is a waste minimisation facilitator with ME Family Services in Māngere. His job is to educate community about rubbish and recycling separation, while also upskilling families around composting options for food waste. His role highlights a growing shift in New Zealand towards sustainability but, he says, we still have lots to learn about our rubbish systems here in “clean green” Aotearoa.

He started in this role four years ago, almost by accident. Koia was a bus driver and one of his contracts was to transport groups to the Waitākere Transfer Station to attend public tours of the site.

“I would sit in on the presentations and one day, I asked myself, ‘What are we doing to Papatūānuku? How are we treating our mother?’ The whakatauki, ‘Ko au te whenua, ko te whenua ko au – I am the land and the land is me’, tells us if the whenua is sick, we are sick.”

Koia says the concept of parakore is about reducing the waste that goes into Papatūānuku for the health and wellbeing of the whenua and for the people.

“If we use less land for rubbish, we have more land for growing kai, for recreation, and to support our eco system. When we look at nature, our plants and animals use their waste as a resource to build habitats, to feed soils. We seem to be the only living things doing damage to the whenua through our waste.

“We put out our bins, trucks come and pick them up, and as far as we know, the rubbish is gone and we don’t have to think about it again. But when you see a landfill in person, you can’t deny that we need to make some serious changes.”

A modern day landfill is not an environment set up to promote decomposition. Each hole is covered with a geosynthetic liner (read plastic), then a clay liner. Solid waste is compacted inside with one pipe to remove methane gas, generating electricity, and another pipe to drain leachate and transport it to a treatment plant. The hole is sealed, so air cannot get in, creating poor conditions for anything to break down.

When the average Auckland rubbish bin contains 10% recyclables, 10% green waste and 45% food, only 35% of what is sent to landfill is actually ‘rubbish’.

With long term ambitions to become a zero waste city, Auckland Council are introducing a ‘pay as you throw’ system across the region, to be implemented by 2020.

“People need to start making attitudinal shifts and look at innovative ways to reduce, reuse, recycle, recover and treat our waste,” says Koia. “Or you will literally be paying for it.”

The solution, he adds, lies with consumers.

“We have the power to change what ends up in landfill by making conscious decisions about what we’re buying in the first place. It is great that the government have announced the phasing out of single use plastic bags over the next year, but what about all the things we put inside them? Consumers can create change, at scale, by altering our purchasing behaviour. We need to be supporting companies that take responsibility for their products at the end of their life.”

Tahilia and Semisi Hutchison of Little & Brave

When Tahlia Hutchison (Tainui, Te Arawa) had her first child three years ago, she was adamant she would be a ‘cloth mum’. She was already good at recycling and was a keen composter. Then her son was born with skinny thighs and sensitive skin, and no matter how many brands she tried, the cloth nappy option just didn’t work for her. He was also born with Down Syndrome, which required many hospital visits in his early years. She resorted to the most convenient option for her situation, and stocked up on disposables from the supermarket shelf.

Still concerned about her impact on the environment, with a rubbish bin containing 95% nappies, Tahlia took to Google in search of biodegradable options.

“I found nappies that claimed they were compostable but you still had to cut sticky tabs off or remove a dispersion layer. Or wait until they composted then go through and remove the left over plastic bits,” she says.

On average, more than 1 million disposables are sent to landfill every day. Tahlia kept searching.

She found Sue Allison-Rogers, a scientist, inventor, and grandmother from Tasmania. Together, with husband Semisi on board, Tahlia was set on bringing New Zealand’s first fully decomposable nappy to market. So Little & Brave was born.

“Our company is about choice,” she adds. “People should be able to make choices about the end of life of the products they are buying. I am passionate about this. We want to help families make good choices, without having to wake up to a leaky bum and a wet bed.

“The name ‘Little’ represents our tamariki. The ‘Brave’ part was an acknowledgement that to make steps to reduce waste in a meaningful way, its going to take parents and caregivers making brave choices for our children’s future.”

Growing up in Kaitaia, surrounded by the beauty of 90 Mile Beach, kaitiakitanga was instilled in Tahlia from a young age. It has informed and influenced many of her lifestyle decisions.

Bringing an eco-friendly product to market was one thing, creating a complete service was another.

With commercial composting still an emerging industry, of the 96 providers across New Zealand only 11 were set up to compost compostable products. Of that, only four had active programmes doing so.

“So we opened our own composting facility, too!”

The full cycle service starts with an online order of the products, nappies delivered directly to homes, and then soiled nappies are collected and taken away to be composted. The composted soil is currently being used on a large section of commercial farmland in rural South Auckland.

“We have testing in place to ensure the soil is packaging and contaminant free, meeting the composting standards. We’re staying away from uses in the food production market, but there are many other options for use of the compost in areas that don’t involve production of kai. When you think about it, most of us use horse and cow poo on our gardens, this isn’t much different. With good standards in place to take all the bugs out, our compost will have lots of uses and benefits, too.”

Having been on the market for less than a month, the interest in Little & Brave products have grown rapidly. Because they want to offer a full service, they’re currently only available in Auckland where their composting plant is based. There are plans to expand but only if they can complete the end-of-life cycle in other regions.

“A compostable product is not compostable in landfill, there just aren’t the right conditions,” says Tahlia. “We want to ensure that our nappies don’t just become something with fancy branding, but actually live up to their name. So if we know we can’t compost it, you can’t buy it.”

Catherine and Caleb Tamihere of The Honest Eco.

With the idea that kaitiakitanga is in our blood, there is an opportunity for Māori to provide leadership in the sustainability space. Leadership in innovation and also, leadership within whānau and community.

Husband and wife team Catherine (Ngāti Porou) and Caleb Tamihere (Ngāti Porou ki Hauraki) say this is a driver for their business, The Honest Eco.

“We are big believers in ‘small change, leads to big change’,” says Caleb.

The pair have a goal to reduce the waste, particularly plastic waste, generated by homes. Selling glass pump bottles and offering a bulk refill service on eco-friendly household cleaning products, they are championing simple change for families.

“Kids make you think about everything you produce and what you are leaving behind for them,” adds Catherine. “On average were putting out 10 empty bottles from hand wash to dishwashing liquids, shampoos and more. We’d buy refills but they would fill the bottle twice, then were going into the bin, too.”

Although they were going into the recycling bin, the Tamihere’s were conscious that recycling plants, like the one in Thames, were overflowing. It was one product they wanted to see much less of in the environment.

They purchased their own bulk container of product from Ecostore and instantly noticed a reduction in the amount of household rubbish they produced. They wanted others to have the same experience but with the added convenience of not having to make a special trip to a refill station.

Living in rural Auckland with two energetic toddlers, the Tamihere’s had adapted to the convenience of online shopping and online groceries. So they decided their business would be online, too.

Through The Honest Eco, you can order five litre refills of popular, environmentally friendly, branded body and hand wash, dish and laundry liquid, multi-purpose cleaners and hair products. Containers are picked up from your home and delivered to their refill workshop in Patumahoe, filled over the weekend, and returned back the following week.

“So you can have one large plastic container, and that is all you need forever. Then in the home you have smaller glass bottles, and those will last a lifetime,” says Catherine. “Plastic is quite a new thing. My mum still got milk in a glass bottle, but everything I have grown up with is plastic.”

Caleb adds: “Regardless of what side of the argument you fall on, or what you think is the best solution for sustainability, at the end of the day you can’t do what you have always done. We can’t pollute the earth and expect to get away with it forever.

“Sometimes I will be watching a movie and watch the camera pan over a city, and it makes me realise how many people are on this earth and that many probably don’t care about the impact they are having. But if we start a movement, our kids learn off us and this will become their new normal.”

Since opening in June the company hasn’t printed a single packing list, they’ve used recycled cardboard packaging (sourced from a few bin jumps) and are now tailoring their products to also promote te reo Māori.

“We’ve got Māori labels for our glass bottles,” shares Caleb. “Now we just have to find the right word for multi-purpose cleaner!”

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