canterbury’s own lifestyle magazine / a great local read

Plastic Free Wanaka (PFW), a local waste-awareness movement-cum-committee, has been championing eco initiatives for the past three years, mostly through waste-free workshops and awareness campaigns. Their mission: through fun events and education, we show people the harm done by single-use plastics and make it easy and affordable to choose reusable options. Now, some of their more creative ideas are beginning to take flight, and the community is evidently ready to undergo the journey with them; 650 people attended their waste-free fair this year. The last time I wrote about Anna van Riel, the founder of PFW, I described her as ‘creative, boisterous and caring’. Nothing has changed, except I would retrospectively add the term ‘indefatigable’ to her list of qualities.

As I sit in Anna’s house to speak with her about the efforts of PFW since our last meeting, she is zooming about the place readying her two children for school and responding to email requests regarding performances (she is also a musician), all the while vocalising lyrics from one of the seven songs that forms a part of her upcoming project: Waste Free Wanda, a travelling solo musical performance, aspiring to educate school children on the power they have to encourage waste-free living in their communities.

Every facet of the performance, songs, costume and set, will be laced with a fun ’80s vibe, in order to keep the mood light and empowering, whilst addressing a heavy issue. Think ‘Captain Planet’ style; although, once Anna is in full swing with her performance, Captain Planet might just need to be thought of in accordance with Waste Free Wanda’s style. Using organic skills is important to the PFW team, so it seems Anna was almost destined to undertake a project that combined her love of musical performance and living a waste-free lifestyle, noting that she is already an accomplished children’s singer-songwriter. ‘The songs will be super simple and catchy for kids,’ says Anna. ‘Hopefully, the punchy hooks of each song will empower the audience with a message that sticks.’ As she articulates the details of this performance, it becomes immediately evident how much energy this commitment must be taking, on top of an already busy professional life. ‘The biggest risk to personal passion is personal burnout,’ she tells me. ‘I have to sustain a holistic balance in my life. An unsustainable [foundation] leads to cutting corners.’ She is hoping to be performing by February 2020; all efforts until that point will have taken every spare moment of Anna’s precious time, as well as being completed on a tight budget; significant funds for the project have been kindly donated by Queenstown Lakes District Waste Minimisation and Management Fund.

In order to bring ‘Wanda’ to life as a superhero for local kids, this contribution by the council has been essential, Anna tells me. Once Wanda is on tour, she will make an excellent addition to the ‘Waste-free Crusaders’ team, along with ‘Plastic Free Paula’, the eccentric and quaintly dressed mascot of PFW. Paula is brilliantly performed by Anna’s sister, Nicole, and together they have released a series of short, informative and entertaining videos on PFW’s YouTube channel, providing eco advice for everyday citizens.

‘Are we really in that much of a rush? I remember, as a child, my parents would sit and enjoy a coffee in the afternoon,’ says Jana Reulecke, coordinator of Single Use Cup Free, or SUCfree Wanaka, another initiative birthed from the PFW team, particularly their treasurer, Sophie Ward.

SUCfree Wanaka’s vision is to guide their town to be free of disposable coffee cups by 2022. An estimated 295 million disposable coffee cups are used in New Zealand every year, the vast majority of which are made from non-recyclable materials; therefore, in order to manage the sheer volume of this material waste, they are either incinerated or deposited into landfills. Although ‘compostable’ alternatives do exist within the market, the amount of cups that are actually treated by commercial composting systems is miniscule. ‘[Wanaka] is so naturally beautiful and we want to protect it,’ says Jana.

PFW is promoting a three-pronged strategy to encourage Wanaka’s residents and visitors to take part in the reuse revolution, and it’s as simple as: Sit, Borrow or BYO! Purchasing your own reusable cup, or sitting and enjoying your coffee in a traditional cup seems simple enough, but how does one, well, borrow a cup? The answer has been supplied by a Wellington-based organisation, Again Again, who have pioneered a cup ‘lending’ initiative, wherein a customer who has clumsily forgotten to bring their reusable cup to the café can pay an additional three dollars to borrow an ‘Again Again’ cup, and then receive a three dollar discount off their next coffee when they return the same cup to any participating coffee provider; simple. Consumers can even locate nearby participating outlets via the Again Again website.

PFW is encouraging as many local businesses in the hospitality and tourism sector to adopt the Again Again model; eight are already registered between Wanaka, Albert Town and Lake Hawea. One notable café in Wanaka, Big Fig, has been campaigning against disposable cups before the introduction of the Again Again model, and since their adoption of the initiative, in the first two weeks of November 2019, Big Fig have loaned 85 Again Again cups and had given discounts on 270 coffees when their customers brought their own cup. This combined effort outdid the 280 disposable cups that were utilised in the same period; trends are positive.

When I spoke to Chrissie Lahood, Big Fig’s owner, she emphasised the importance of collaboration between local consumers and businesses. ‘It’s all well and good for [cafés] to provide the solution, but we need consumers to be very much a part of the mission,’ she says. Wanaka’s transient tourist population causes the ‘borrow’ method to be a little tricky to synchronise with the desired SUCfree mission.

Jana, whose pragmatism is difficult to hide, hopes the solution can one day be even more simple, regressively so: ‘Just sit down and enjoy your coffee!’ She exclaims, with a wry smile. ‘If some are absolutely convinced, though, that they don’t have time, the BYO option is there for them.’ Beaming, she pulls out her own cup; dented and slightly tattered, it seems well used.

Wanaka, along with Queenstown, recently hosted the One Summit 2019, a non-profit conference with a mission to accelerate New Zealand towards an emission-free future. The summit took place over five days and facilitated workshops and lectures focused on a range of industry-related eco-topics, such as sustainable tourism, business and construction. ‘The impact that it had was amazing. We inspired [local] businesses and communities to form partnerships, and encouraged networking behind the scenes. I believe it has certainly planted the seeds to move towards a zero-emissions society,’ says Monique Kelly, co-founder of One New Zealand and facilitator of the event. ‘[In Wanaka] we have an engaged community willing to try out ideas; a bit of a petri dish for eco-experimentation, if you will,’ she continues. At this point it is worth noting that SUCfree Wanaka was a brainchild of last year’s One Summit. Just 12 months later, it is well into its growth phase. ‘Yelling and screaming at people and expecting them to change just doesn’t work. What we have done [instead] is test frameworks in order to facilitate partnerships between regional industries, with the intention of stimulating the positive change needed.’

I think all towns in New Zealand can unashamedly follow the lead of our Wanaka brethren. Let’s face it, they are performing incredible acts in the name of environmentalism, and we certainly have the capacity to learn from their example. Whilst controversy and over-politicisation of climate change still lingers, like an awkward guest who won’t accept that the party is over, management of our waste, particularly plastic, is as uncontroversial as it is immediate. As has been articulated by Anna, Jana and Monique, feeling guilty over historical waste mismanagement or a lack of awareness has no use moving forward. Instead, we need to find a motivation for action, and drum up a sense of urgency amongst each other to alter our attitude towards unnecessary waste. All we need to do to begin, it seems, is follow the pledges of New Zealand’s youth, and perhaps just sit and enjoy our coffee. Sounds easy to me.

Words & Images Isaac McCarthy