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The things they left behind: Why campervans are costing our environment

A stream of overseas visitors has shown me how the NZ tourism industry needs to encourage more environmentally friendly behaviour, writes Jai Breitnauer.

“If you don’t want them, I guess just chuck them out,” my friend told me, gesturing to the pile of stuff on the deck. “That’s what we would have had to do if you weren’t here.”

In just three weeks of travelling our dear friends had accumulated a pile of now unwanted stuff to dispose of almost as big as when we last shifted house. Among the items they couldn’t take back to Europe with them included two garden chairs. “Didn’t these come with your camper?” I asked. “No, it was $50 to hire the chairs, but they were only $10 each to buy at The Warehouse.”

Mind. Blown.

I mean, why on earth would the campervan not come with chairs? And what do travellers who don’t have friends in the country do with all their post-beano crap? Just how many of these ten-dollar chairs are currently clogging up New Zealand landfill, as more than three million tourists and travellers pass through Godzone each year?

Over the last five years a stream of overseas visitors, each one spending their last night or two with us in Auckland before they fly home, has shown us how the tourism industry in New Zealand needs to up its environmental game. I want to make clear this is not a rant about irresponsible tourists – I think NZ media has seen quite enough of those sorts of columns recently. All the people we know who have visited Aotearoa have been very respectful and environmentally minded, and on our travels around the country the vast majority of people we have met have been too. But after arriving here for the green, clean adventure they’ve been sold by our tourism machine, holiday-makers are often forced into purchasing items for a limited amount of use, and given few options for responsible disposal of those items when they leave. This just isn’t sustainable.

Not all tourists rent camper vans, but many do, and none of those vans seem to come with the basics. I can’t even begin to count the number of half-filled detergent bottles, quarter-used packs of tea bags and toilet rolls I’ve inherited from departing holiday makers over the years. There are more than 70,000 campervans hired each year in New Zealand, with most holiday makers coming for around two to three weeks. It would make sense for these vehicles to come with a stock of loo roll, washing up liquid, tea, coffee, salt and pepper, perhaps even a small bottle of cooking oil – and crucially, that when the camper was returned any of these items left behind would be welcomed for use by the next hirers rather than treated as rubbish incurring a charge. While many campsites around New Zealand have a shelf or box for travellers to place their unwanted items for the next lucky soul (when we were at Akaroa Top 10 Holiday Park in late December, the box there contained approximately 12kg of salt) not all campers stay at holiday parks, not all holiday parks offer this facility, and there must still be a huge amount of half-used stuff being thrown out by holiday-makers not wishing to be fined for leaving ‘refuse’ in their camper.

The next level up is looking at the equipment supplied by campervan companies. As well as the two folding chairs, we’ve been gifted pillows, wine glasses, coffee mugs and cutlery because they did not come as standard, and could not be taken home. One family who stayed with us for two days in 2015 had bought an entire dinner service for their trip because the one supplied was unfeasibly small. We joked the camper was ‘Hobbit-themed’ as we inspected the tiny cups and saucer-sized plates. Another couple who stopped off at ours had purchased an electric blanket – it was August and they found night time in their van very cold. You could argue this was a personal choice, but the very basic campervan (which they had been assured online was suitable for winter use) had no internal heating when the engine was off and they were expected to supply their own bedding – and the lightweight sleeping bags they’d flown over with didn’t cut the mustard.

Road tripping around NZ is a dream come true for many overseas visitors. But what happens to those deckchairs after they leave? (Photo: Getty Images)

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The most frustrating item left behind due to the inadequate stocking of hired campervans has to be a camping stove. The stove was purchased by three friends who hired an allegedly four-berth van that came with just a single burner stove and one pot, forcing them to buy a two-burner gas stove and bottle, frying pan and camping kettle – all of which were left with us to sell on Trade Me. I was livid – why on are earth companies are allowed to rent out vehicles without adequate equipment for the length of time, season or number of people staying in them? And, if we weren’t here to receive and aggregate these items appropriately, where would they go? It is doubtful many tourists would have the time or local knowledge to make a charity shop stop, visit a recycling centre or list items for sale online on their way to the airport. The amount of stuff left in roadside picnic spots – and the rightful frustration that causes among local residents – is one clue as to what happens to these items when tourists are offered no realistic alternatives.

The campervans themselves also deserve some scrutiny. A recent article about Lucky Rentals highlighted the fact that many vehicles available for use at the cheaper end of the market fall well below the standard I think most Kiwis, and the tourists themselves, would expect. Of course, Lucky Rentals is a respectable company whose vehicles comply with the minimum legal standard required – which has left me wondering if those standards are stringent enough. Some of our friends who have hired budget, two-berth campers have had very dubious experiences. One couple had a vehicle with almost 500,000kms on the clock. They couldn’t get above 60km an hour and the auto gear box rarely switched out of second. They estimated they were paying about 35c for every km fuel-wise, and regretted not hiring a more expensive van. Of course, there was nothing on the site they hired it from saying, ‘this is a total old banger with major breakdown potential that will cost you – and the earth – dearly’. While they weren’t anticipating luxury, especially for the money paid, they had a minimum expectation that was far from met.

Overseas tourists road tripping in rental vans make up an important part of New Zealand’s essential tourism industry. Vehicle hire, fuel, food, and experiences purchased here contribute around $500m annually to the pot. But is it time to ask how much budget tiki-tourism is costing the country? Each year we hear local council representatives moaning about the mess left by tourists, freedom campers and travellers – and yes, visitors should take more responsibility for their actions while they are here. But we need to start facilitating that more effectively. Right now, the campervan industry – particularly the low-cost end – works in a way that encourages undesirable behaviour around waste. A few simple changes could significantly reduce the amount of tourism-generated rubbish in landfill, and guide campervan renters toward sustainable practices more suited to the beautiful environment they’ve chosen to visit. It’s time to stop shrugging our shoulders and rolling our eyes at visitors, and implement effective, industry-led change.


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