A West Auckland backyard is home to a growing collection of shopping trolleys retrieved from local bush and waterways. But the supermarket they belong to doesn’t seem interested in coming to pick them up.
Ethan Smith knows a supermarket trolley when he sees one. He’ll be out walking his dog when, from the yellow pedestrian bridge near his West Auckland home, he’ll spot a handle poking out of the bush, the hint of silver metal glinting in the sun, or a forlorn wheel spinning in the wind.
He also knows what what he needs to do next.
Smith has got his routine down pat: the father-of-five heads home to fetch a specialty rope with an anchor attached to it. With his kids beside him, they go “trolley fishing”, hurling the rope off the bridge then swinging it around until it connects and hooks onto the trolley’s metal frame.
Smith’s kids then begin reeling in their catch. They chant, “Heave ho” like a group of handy Christmas trolley elves who’ve caught the big one. “It’s a hard business … trolley fishing,” quips Smith over footage posted to Facebook recently. Sometimes their family dog Huki will help tow their catch home using a bungee cord attached to its collar.
He’s been doing this, on and off, for nine years, ever since the distinctive yellow bridge was built to help those who live across the North-Western motorway reach the Westgate mall by foot. This, Smith says, is when residents began borrowing trolleys to transport their Westgate mall purchases home, before abandoning them in nearby streets.
That’s how they end up in the bush and creek next to the motorway, directly under the bridge. “These little shits … take them and chuck them off the bridge,” says Smith.
So over those nine years, Smith has rescued countless trolleys from their watery graves and returned them dutifully to Countdown, pushing them back over the bridge, into the supermarket’s carpark and safely into a trolley bay. He estimates he’s rescued hundreds of trolleys in this way and hasn’t received a word of thanks.
Earlier this year, Smith decided he’d had enough. Instead of returning them, he began wheeling his finds home and storing them in his backyard. It is, partly, a form of one-man protest. “I’ve been tidying up for years now and I’ve had enough of doing their job for them,” he says. “But I wanted them to see that size of the problem. You only see the size of the problem when you’ve got all the trolleys combined.”
It’s also a statement about the environmental damage he believes those trolleys are doing. “Once they get thrown off the bridge they fill up with debris,” he says. “They create erosion around the banks because the water has to change its course and then that pushes the bush [back]. I don’t want these bloody trolleys [in the stream].”
He’s also setting an example for his kids. “Somebody’s gotta look after this … planet and if it’s not me teaching my kids, who’s gonna do it? These companies ain’t going to do it.” Lately, he’s rescued so many it’s making it difficult for Smith to do his gardening – especially with the grass growing so fast in Auckland’s damp, humid summer weather. “Moving that many trolleys to mow the lawns, bro, it’s not easy,” he says.
Smith contacted Pak’nSave about the several trolleys of theirs that he’d collected and someone arrived earlier this week to take them back. To say thanks, the supermarket gave him an expensive box of chocolates. “I said, ‘Thank you very much for that.'”
Countdown, though, has been a different story. He estimates his collection of Countdown trolleys is up to about 15, and growing every day. “I can’t come to an agreement with them,” says Smith. He claims the store’s manager told him, “Do what you want to do with them.” But he doesn’t want them taken to the scrap yard. “I don’t want them to be cut down and made into other things. I want them to take responsibility and come and get their trolleys. Countdown needs to be accountable for their property.”
When contacted for comment, a Countdown spokesperson said it was investigating this “specific” incident. It also passed on an 0800 number (0800 40 40 40), or suggested trying the supermarket’s chatbot Olive if anyone found an abandoned trolley. It said contractors sweep the streets surrounding its supermarkets for trolleys. “We understand abandoned trolleys can be a nuisance and that’s why we invest in collection services to help mitigate their impact in the community,” it said.
But Smith says he’s tried calling his Countdown supermarket and hasn’t had any luck. He’s also tried Westgate mall management, who told him to take it up with his local council representative. So he did that too. “I went to the local council. I was like, ‘Hey, what can be done?’ And they said, ‘The issue’s over.’ I said, ‘No, the issue’s not over.'”
Smith says solving the issue is simple, and he doesn’t think he’s asking for much. He says a sign asking people not to take trolleys out of the supermarket carpark would probably do the trick.
For now, the problem’s getting worse. More people are moving to Westgate, which has become a hot destination thanks to the opening of the NorthWest mall and the arrival of Costco, with plenty of townhouse developments on surrounding streets. More people means more shoppers, and that means more abandoned trolleys.
Smith already has a job as a content creator for Whakaata Māori, but he says he’d be willing to carve out time as a contractor, employed solely to return missing trolleys. His fee? Just $5 a trolley. “I said to them, ‘Hey, if you don’t want to come and get them then give me a contract and on my walks, I’ll pick them up … I’ll return the trolleys to you. I’m giving you an easy out.”
But when he offered them this option, Smith says the response was: “They don’t want to do that.” He hasn’t heard anything since.