When it comes to environmental issues New Zealand seems to be lagging behind the UK. Big companies here have robust policies to manage the environmental impact of their activities, but most of the general public seem to lack the middle class guilt and recycling obsession that has gripped the British public in recent years. People drive here all the time, even to travel really short distances, and things like recycling have not yet become a normal part of most Kiwi households (judging by what I’ve seen, anyway).
I think that part of the issue might be a general sense that, given the tiny size of this country’s population, the environmental impact of our activities is pretty small and the corresponding effect of any environmental policies is equally minimal. However, I think that’s a mistake, for one ‘moral’ reason and one more practical reason.
The ‘moral’ reason is the general sense that we’re merely custodians of the planet and probably shouldn’t just stuff it all up for future generations – if we can minimise the impact of our activities, why wouldn’t we?
The more practical reason is that New Zealand has a global reputation for being clean and green, in which Kiwis take great pride. They shouldn’t be too self-congratulatory, in my opinion: this place is only ‘clean’ because it doesn’t have a large population and correspondingly large number of cars and factories pumping rubbish into the air; and it’s only ‘green’ in as much that there’s heaps of grass everywhere. With the notable exception of Wellington, it’s virtually impossible to live in any reasonably sized town or city here and rely solely on public transport. Auckland, in particular, is terrible in this regard. It’s not dissimilar to Los Angeles: it’s a sprawling place with a heavy dependency on cars. I live on the North Shore and my part of the city is connected to the CBD by the Auckland Harbour Bridge and by a few commuter ferry services. There are heavily populated suburbs in the North Shore, many of which are right on the shore, but there just doesn’t seem to be demand for really good ferry services – people would rather sit in traffic jams. And the Harbour Bridge doesn’t actually allow people to cross it unless they’re in a vehicle; there’s no pedestrian or ycle lane. How stupid is that?
The issue of recycling is an interesting one. I’m delighted that NZ is free from the sanctimonious British attitude towards this kind of thing – it really was unbearable over there, with people acting like failing to separate paper and cardboard was akin to beating children. However, I’m not sure why some of my fellow Kiwis are so bone idle when it comes to slinging their plastic and glass into a wheely bin. In Auckland, the council makes it pretty easy to recycle: once a fortnight, we can put out paper and cardboard, separately bundled into bags (most of us just use supermarket plastic bags). We also have a wheely bin, into which we can fling glass, food and drink cans, and plastic. On a weekly basis we can put out general rubbish, using pre-paid council-issued bags that one buys from the supermarket. These bags are huge and very sturdy (rubbish bags that burst are one of my pet hates), and – owing to the fact that we can recycle most of our rubbish – we only have one bag of general rubbish each week. That ability to do to put plastic in the recycling is particularly handy, as we couldn’t do that in the UK and had to cart stuff to recycling banks ourselves (which we did, but it was a much bigger hassle).
The really great thing that Auckland Council does is its annual ‘inorganics’ rubbish collection. This rolling collection moves from suburb to suburb – you get a flier in the letterbox a few weeks before your suburb’s collection is due to take place. It enables householders to put out any old rubbish that they’ve accumulated throughout the year: crapped-out furniture, leftover stuff from renovations, household items that have broken down – anything. If you drive around the relevant suburbs a few days before the scheduled collection you see piles of rubbish on the curb in front of every house. You also see people cruising around the streets, checking out other people’s stuff and taking what they want. It’s recycling at its most basic: people finding a use for other people’s discarded stuff. And our inorganics collection was held a couple of weeks after our belongings arrived from the UK, which gave us an easy way to get rid of the trashed packing cases (we also passed on a huge number of them to a random woman who saw the flattened packing cases in our carport and asked to use them for her own move).
I’m not an eco-warrior by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think that it’s not a big ask to put the recycling out every now and then; I’d like to see more people doing it. And at least I’m now forceably cured of my big eco-sin: air travel – I’m far away from everywhere else to visit by plane these days, and I’m too skint to take a holiday abroad!
Other environmental issues, like water conservation, feel like less on an issue here: it rains in Auckland nearly every day, after all…