I have wanted to sit and write another blog for a long time, but with a five day a week job and three kids, time has been scarce and the days slip by so fast I can’t even catch my breath. Every now and again I pause to take stock, remembering to slow down and pay attention to the moment I am in. I might stop to watch hundreds of thousands of introduced starlings around where we live flying in mesmerizing murmurations over our house – trying to imagine what the giant flocks of kakariki would have been like 160 years ago in Canterbury. The other day I looked up while I holding my son’s hand as we walked together across the school playground and lost myself momentarily gazing at the incredible clouds above my head. The water vapor in dense broody grey surges like a slow moving avalanche across the sky reminded me how finely tuned and rare our planet is. What an incredible creation it is. In moments like these I am reminded again how small I am and how big the Earth is, but also how totally dependent we all are on this one planet and its health. Every day more and more of our environment is compromised and more and more of the incredible species we share it with are becoming threatened.
Today I am writing about a species many people in New Zealand may have seen but not thought much about. In 2012 this plant’s conservation status was listed as “not threatened”. In 2018 that changed to “threatened – nationally vulnerable”. It is a woody climbing vine with pretty white flowers called Metrosideros perforata. It is a type of rata, and is related to the pohutukawa (Metrosideros excelsaalso known as New Zealand’s Christmas tree). I have a real soft spot for Metrosideros perforata with its fluffy white flowers and attractive dark green foliage. This year I stopped to photograph it covered in bees and masses of flowers at Punakaiki during our summer holiday. I spent quite a while “in the moment” while I looked at the flowers, wondering why we don’t see it planted more often.
M. perforata fills an important ecological role in creating habitat for some of New Zealand’s stick insect species. Planting a combination of manuka, kanuka and M. perforata would be ideal to attract these fascinating insects into your garden. During mid summer M. perforata is covered in masses of white flowers opening from white buds. These flowers are popular with native bees, introduced bees, and are highly attractive to butterflies, birds, geckos, and (at night) bats and moths. For lizards the plant also provides habitat connection and protection from predators. Native birds such as the tui, bellbird and kākā all benefit from the presence of rātā in a forest.
Metrosideros perforata was valued by Maori, who prized it for use in lashing. It was used in the manufacture of weapons (eg lashing an adz to a handle) as well as in construction of palisades and other structures. Thin young stems of M. perforata were tied in a green state, when they were still pliable. Once they had subsequently dried, they became very hard and rigid. The large cables that form on very old rata vines were also used by Maori as a means of climbing cliffs – a practice that is adapted in the myth of Tawhaki, a warrior who ascended to the heavens on a giant ‘aka’ cable (to bring back his wife and child, in one version).
If you (like me) are addicted to gardening and small scale ecosystem restoration, then this is definitely a plant you should have in your garden. Because its a climber it can be planted beside retaining walls, along side fences and walls and it will look gorgeous with it’s masses of fluffy white flowers. Planting it will also have many positive effects on the birds, bats, lizards and insects that struggle in our heavily modified modern environment. Many of our native plants are overlooked because they are relatively unknown. I think we need to look more to our native plants and create micro or pocket ecosystems to help re-establish these plants more widely. I have seen M. perforata for sale recently at Bunnings, but it is also available online at various native plant nursery’s including Tawapou Coastal Natives.
I hope I have given you some food for thought and some inspiration to plant something new in your garden. Every little bit counts, that’s what I keep telling myself. Each plant that is planted contributes to the continuation of a species and also helps countless other life forms as well. We have a little M. perforata plant that we grew from a cutting. It is too small at present to plant in our little native ecosystem restoration area but next year we hope to add it to to our little pocket forest. Hopefully it will grow and produce plenty of seeds that will spread widely all around the area. When it is mature enough to flower, I will be able to pause and watch the bees at work in the beautiful white flowers and remember that I am part of something much bigger than just me. I am part of repairing the damage to our planet. I can’t just live on this planet, I have to contribute. I can’t just take from it I have to give to it.
So there you have it, one more reason to go hard for the environment and conservation.
Common name: Akatea
Threats: All rata species are currently listed as threatened, partly due to invasive Myrtle Rust (Austropuccinia psidii). Rata are also extremely palatable to possums.
Flowering: November – March, flower colour white.
Description: Woody long-climbing vine. Dense fluffy clusters of white flowers.
Distribution: Endemic. New Zealand: Three Kings, North and South Islands to about northern Otago and northern Fiordland
Habitat: Coastal to montane. An abundant plant of open scrub, dense forest or rock-land. In forest and scrub situations climbing on other trees but also climbing up cliff faces, and on rock outcrops.
Suits: damp, dry, shade, partial shade, sunny, shelter, exposure, coastal forest garden, coastal and dune garden, small garden or balcony.
This is the little South Island robin that blessed us with a 15 minute up close visit on our walk up the Fox River.
In January during the summer holidays, our family spent two weeks in the South Island. We had a very typical New Zealand Summer experience weather wise. We packed up to leave in 34 degrees of hot dry nor’west wind and travelled south into an almost stable 13 degrees, lots of rain, and even a snowfall on the Southern Alps as a southerly blew through. Despite this we had a magic time. A leaking tent at Fox Glacier was no barrier to us enjoying the majestic scenery and showing the kids the glaciers. We were determined to let them see the glaciers before they retreat too far up their valleys to see at all. We wanted them to see what humanity is loosing. Climate change is real and it was graphically clear at Franz Josef Glacier just how far it has retreated in the lifetime of our ten year old daughter. If ever we as a family needed a reminder why we need to go hard for the environment the glaciers were an incredible and terribly sad proof that we (collectively) have to make more effort.
A few days later we drove up to Punakaiki and we got lucky and struck the sunniest and warmest day of our holiday. We headed up the Fox River to walk up the track for a bit and find a swimming hole. On route to find the perfect swimming spot we were blessed by the presence of a South Island robin. I have never seen a South Island robin before (although I have met the closely related North Island robin Mana Island). Our whole family of five sat down and waited to see what this precious little bird would do. I roughed up the leaf litter with my foot wondering if it would see some interesting little bugs. It hopped right up to us and spent 15 mins pecking around, watching us cautiously, and practically sitting on our feet. It was so trusting of us. And it is so unusual that a lot of New Zealanders have never had such an experience. It was so close we could see it’s tiny eyelashes, and watch as it raised it feathers each time we moved. Imagine if we could see these little birds in our back yards. Our native species are often overlooked and forgotten because they are so rare that they are effectively invisible to us as we go about our daily lives.
I find that as I am swamped with the day to day grind of work, housework, the kids sports practices and games, doctor appointments, shopping for the weekly food, remembering to return library books and all the multitudinous things that life throws at me, the environment can get swamped. Sometimes I need a wake up call to remind me what we are trying to do as a family and why it matters. I know I am not the only one to start off with good intentions only to forget in the rush and regret it later. So I have decided to post short blogs on key NZ species (animal, bird, plant and insect) to help act as a reminder why conservation and the environment matter so much. Many animals and insects and plants are suffering because they are not ‘glamourous’ or famous and as a result they are overlooked altogether. Who has time to think about skinks as they rush to get the supermarket before it closes? Many are never seen by most New Zealander’s and perhaps many people, like me just need a reminder why it all matters. Climate change is hurting these creatures as well as us. They have no voice to argue for themselves. Instead they rely on us to value them and speak for them.
Our South Island robin friend watching us carefully to see if we would scuff up any more insects. I love how slender and tall its little legs are.
Robins/Toutouwai are very curious birds with intelligent bright eyes and will come really close to you. As you walk through the forest your feet disturb small insects in the leaf litter and they are attracted to this. They are about the size of a sparrow and stand tall on long legs. There is a North Island robin (Petroica longipes), a South Island robin (Petroica australis australis), and a Stewart Island robin (Petroica australis rakiura). They are all New Zealand robins although, the North Island robin is a completely different species from the other two subspecies. We met North Island Robins on Mana Island when we visited with our kids and spent time picking up plastic on the beach. An interesting fact about robins is that they are believed to be able to count.
Distribution: The South Island robin is found through both the South and Stewart Islands, although it’s populations are disjointed. The North Island robin is found only in the North Island.
New Zealand status: Endemic
Conservation status: Declining
Threats: Habitat loss, predation.
Predators: Introduced mammalian predators, such as feral cats, stoats, possums and ship rats.
Habitat: Forests with dense even canopies, an open understory, and fertile soils covered with leaf litter. Robins can be found in exotic forest stands. Robins are not found in areas with widely scattered trees and where the ground is covered by grasses or sparse vegetation on stony, droughty soils.
Diet: Invertebrates including cicadas, stick insects, tree weta and slugs, as well as smaller insects. During dry periods and during summer and autumn they will take small fruits and berries.
How we can help robins in NZ: They are at risk and declining throughout the South Island, which means they could easily become threatened if we don’t help them out. They need us to support predator eradication efforts and to lobby for their habitat to be protected.
A view of the stunning Fox River on the West Coast. This is robin habitat and we need to protect and safeguard remaining habitat and support predator eradication efforts.
As the end of the year charges up to meet us, the usual southern hemisphere heat, rush and chaos has descended. Schools have finally finished, summer holidays have begun, kids are tired, the weather is scorching (but the water temperature is still cooler than we would like), and the end of year Christmas party season is upon us. In our house this time of year includes a kids birthday just days before Christmas! I am sure you will have noticed that 2020 has been an extraordinarily strange year, and now to make it even stranger as we approach Christmas, I am reading about Covid related shortages of toys! This year has been full of tragedy for so many around the world. Over a million people have died, essential workers are stretched, businesses have collapsed, people have lost their jobs, and doctors, nurses and epidemiologists are our heroes. Here in New Zealand we have very little to complain about. We have been blessed that other than a 6 week lockdown and a brief return to level 3 and 2, we have been blessed to be able to continue our lives largely as normal. Reading the news brings us back to the covid19 reality of the rest of the world.
In light of the global situation a few shortages seem pretty unimportant, and perhaps we need to get some perspective here. Kids don’t really need gimmicks and toys if we are truly honest about it. I think most of it comes from the adult idea about what makes us happy (and most of us have been sucked into consumerist ideas of happiness without even realising) and a desire to show affection in a visually tangible way (look how much I got you, look how big it is, and please notice how expensive it was…. That means I love you). But if you stop and think about it, do you want piles of expensive toys that kids will grow tired of five minutes after it is assembled, or after every button has been pushed? Adults have this funny idea about the “magic of Christmas” as if it has to be created. But really there are many ways to experience joy and there are many ways to spread joy that you can achieve without resorting to Kmart, empty toy shelves and the immense pressure to purchase toys everywhere you go.
Here are some ideas you might not have considered to help you bring joy without toys and to create fun and experiences that will continue giving joy for years.
Sports equipment – good quality – listen to what your kids are interested in and buy things that will last for years. That way if your kids move on from it you can pass it on to the Sallies (or any charity shop), sell it online or give it away to someone else. Cheap stuff usually breaks and ends up in the landfill and that is something we all need to be trying to avoid. Spend more on less and get quality. Ideas include rugby balls, bike repair kits, cricket sets, tennis racket.
Cooking equipment – decent stuff you’d buy for yourself – cake decorating things, icing bags, books of ideas and techniques. Choose stuff that will last, and encourage your kids to take care of it so it lasts a lifetime! In the past we have given our kids measuring spoons, cups, and baking molds. We even gave them small saucepans so they could use their own equipment. Cookery books for kids are a great idea. Even giving interesting ingredients will go down well.
Gardening things – Create a bit of garden for them to plant things in, or if you haven’t got space for a garden bed, try a wooden planter box. Perhaps buy the materials and help them to make it for themselves. Give seeds, and seedling pots, plants, watering cans, garden trowels and hand forks. Help your kids to discover the joy of gardening and learn together as a family.
Tool box and tools – again don’t be tempted to buy the cheapest stuff at the hardware store. There is nothing fun about tools that don’t work properly or break when you are using them. Seek advice and get something that will do the job well and will last if it is dropped! I am thinking of builder’s pencils, tape measures, hammers and nails, a set of screwdrivers, a handsaw, little socket sets and the like. If Mum or Dad or Grandpa like to tinker on the car or build things in the garage, then a toolbox with tools is a great Christmas or birthday idea. I have seen simple pre-cut kitset bird tables, bookends, and planter boxes for sale and if you can’t find one or make up the pieces yourself, the chances are that you can find someone who can whip a kitset together for you in their garage (or try your local Menz Shed).
Books! Do I need to say more? Books are a great gift for all ages and interests. Books for information, how to guides, stories, facts, classics, books about sport, animals, monsters, technology, gardening, cooking, crafts, famous people, the list is endless. Books are amazing. Our kids all read, and they read ALL the time. The secret to getting kids to read is to get them great books, to read to them and with them. Read good stories out loud to the family after tea instead of turning on the TV. Choose wisely, and look for literature rather than meaningless cutesy stories or that latest movie fad. Go online and look for a list of great children’s authors and hunt out something really enduring. Books by local authors often make more sense to kids because they feel familiar culturally. In our case, there are a vast array of amazing authors right here in NZ. Librarians are great at recommending books if you are stuck.
Craft supplies – Give gifts of fabric, elastic, soft toy patterns, eyes, buttons, needles, thread, sewing scissors, safety pins, knitting needles, and wool in exciting colours. French knitting (you can make your own with a toilet roll and 4 popsicle sticks) or get a wooden one that will last and not disappoint. Crochet needles, knitting needles, felt, googly eyes, little beads. Tee shirts and t-shirt paint! The list of possibilities goes on. Don’t feel you have to buy kid themed things or pre-packaged boxed activities. Adult things work better as a rule and are usually made to last.
Art supplies – real art supplies. Go to a place that sells proper art things for adults and get them proper coloured pencils, sketch pencils, fine line pens (for outlining) gel pens, erasers, good quality metal pencil sharpeners, a paint box with a couple of good quality brushes, some sketch books, art pads, pencil boxes or oil pastels. Giving kids a creative outlet and something to experiment with is invaluable to developing creative minds and new skills.
Give adventures and experiences. Take your kids tramping (if you’re outside of NZ you might know this as hiking, rambling or such like), buy them tramping gear of their own, go camping, take them to places like wildlife refuges (Pukaha Mt Bruce, Zealandia), museums (Te Papa), the zoo (Orana Park, Willowbank), a seal colony, etc. Take them fishing. Go for a swim at the beach or the river and make a real expedition of it. Make memories.
Games and puzzles for the family. During lockdown board games and jigsaws were rediscovered by people everywhere. A great game will bring hours of fun and entertainment. They can be played by groups of friends, families, and all age groups. Jigsaws are another family friendly activity that is worth considering. We still get wet days in summer and often a puzzle is the perfect way to occupy kids.
All of these things make great presents for kids, and all of them will keep giving joy for many years. If you buy quality you might end up with a little less under the tree, but what you give will last and can be passed on to others in the future instead of breaking and ending up in the landfill.
A couple of other ideas that might be fun to try out if you have a bit of time are gingerbread biscuits or if you are ambitious, what about a gingerbread house? Try helping your kids to make the family Christmas Crackers. A few funny jokes on bits of paper, small gifts, chocolates and Christmas decorations are all you need. Write Christmas cards with the kids and post them to their friends. Have you ever noticed how much kids LOVE getting a letter in the mailbox? Make Christmas decorations one afternoon. Get creative and see how many things you can find on a walk that you can decorate for the tree. Help your kids to sew simple drawstring bags or hair scrunchies to give away as gifts. Make lavender bags!
Above all, take time out for yourselves to slow down and enjoy time together. We are so often running around here, there and everywhere, or plugged into our devices, that we miss the simple joy of spending time together.
These ideas have created joy in our family for years and I really hope and pray that they give you ideas for your families as well. Sometimes less is more and I really do mean that. Kids can actually create magic out of their imaginations, they don’t really need the latest Hollywood movie themed noisemaker or dress-up to have fun. All they need is love at the end of the day. And Love is what Christmas is all about.
Conservation and restoration is vital to our survival as a species. It’s important because we inhabit this world together with a myriad of creatures both large and tiny. The way we lead our lives, dispose of our waste, decide what to purchase, and even what pets we own has an impact on the species’ with which we share New Zealand and the world. They have no voice unless we choose to advocate for them. No chance unless we value them, and no future if we don’t take action.
New Zealand is rather special in that it was the last large habitable land mass in the world to be colonised by humans. It is also the most recent large landmass to experience an extinction event. New Zealand was the last ‘primeval’ wilderness on the planet, and as such it was utterly unique. The extinction event in NZ occurred as a result of the arrival of humans, first Maori and then the subsequent arrival of European explorers and settlers. Often I think we tend to view the extinction events associated with the arrival of humans in NZ as being in the past (done and dusted years ago), but in reality we are living right in the middle of it. It isn’t over. We just don’t notice it happening and that is the real tragedy. We just don’t notice until it is too late!
Maori brought the pacific rat or kiore. Then Europeans brought mice, norway rats, ship rats, black rats, stoats, weasels, ferrets, cats, possums, hedgehogs and more. New Zealand’s native fauna evolved for millions of years in isolation. An enchanted archipelago of islands where birds and insects filled almost every niche that mammals would have occupied elsewhere. We even have a ground foraging bat! It was like nowhere else in the world. If we don’t do something to stop the extinctions, and halt the decline of our threatened and unique species, then all we will have are animals that can be found elsewhere. We will no longer be unique.
But it was not only the introduction of predators that decimated our native flora and fauna. Maori began clearing the land through the use of fire, and the clearances intensified after the arrival of European settlers. The signature of these two waves of land clearance show up in pollen and charcoal records from around NZ. In some places the bands of charcoal are still visible in soil profiles today.
The clearances were unimaginable in scale. Most of NZ is now denuded and bare of its native forests and ecosystems. What remains is still threatened in most places. Against the saws and the fires of clearance our majestic forests stood no chance. Now as you drive around NZ you drive through kilometers of rural landscapes, green grassy paddocks and hills dotted with sheep and cows and pine forestry. But those same grassy fields should have towering trees covering them, filled with kokako, huia, and piopio. Sometimes when I look at the fields around me I feel heart sick at what we have lost.
A little over a year ago we managed to buy our first home. Two acres of rural bliss, with a handful of pet sheep and some chickens to keep us busy. One thing we decided to do is to replant parts of the property in locally rare native plants in order to create a seed source. We located some amazing local native plant nurseries that specialise in the specific plants for our particular part of the world. Then we just started planting as often as we could afford to buy the plants.
Myrsine salicina (Toro), planted in our fenced off restoration area.
Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium. One of many in our small scale restoration.
We fenced off small areas at the edges of our paddocks to create windbreaks and shelter for our sheep. These areas are being replanted with natives. Not everything has survived, we estimate that we have had a 20% loss rate among the things we have planted. This loss rate is largely attributed to the damaged soil resulting from more than a hundred years of being farmed. The plants are in puggy degraded soils completely unlike the rich soils that would have been here 200 years ago and there is no shelter. It is hard work getting anything established in that.
Pimelea prostrata (native daphne) planted to create habitat for native skinks.
Fuschia procumbans, planted to help create a gecko habitat and food source.
I recently planted a selection of native plants with my 9 year old daughter and 6 year old son. We turned over the sods and shook the soil from the clumps of grass roots, and I found myself feeling excited as I watched the hands of my children placing native trees into the soil. It felt good to work together to put things back the way they should be, even if it is only a tiny area.
Some things we can put back, like the plants I planted with my children. But some things are gone for good. There are no huia now, no matter what I plant, they are gone for good. There are no kakapo here anymore and no kiwi either. I might not get huia, kakapo or kiwi back by planting a seed source, but I will get, more geckos, skinks, wetas, tui, bellbirds, fantails andkereru. It is worth all the effort just to get them.
We depend on plants and vegetation for our environment so we need to plant intelligently. At various times and for various reasons, exotic plants have been introduced to New Zealand. Unfortunately many of them were unwise choices. Invasive plant species such as gorse, ivy, old mans beard, pampas, sycamores, evergreen buckthorn, elaegnus and many more are a huge problem. Invasive weeds destroy our native plant communities and ecosystems. In light of this, another way that we are trying to make a difference in our little slice of heaven, is to systematically weed out any noxious weeds that we find. We have a LOT of ivy to eradicate, and also a lot of evergreen buckthorn. Given how prolific both buckthorn and ivy are with their seeding I imagine this is going to be an ongoing occupation for many years. If you are keen to “do your bit” then familiarise yourself with the noxious weeds in your area and remove them from your property.
Bee’s are essential to our ecosystem. Even our food sources rely on them to pollinate our food plants.
A native bee busy doing its thing in a purple crocus.
Consider bees (both native and introduced) when you plant your garden. Put in some flowers for them, or plant manuka! New Zealand has 28 species of native bees. Our bees don’t produce honey or live in hives, but they do provide a critical but overlooked role in pollinating native plant species such as kanuka, manuka and pohutukawa. Throwing a few native plant species in your garden will help our little native bees.
I have always been passionate about NZ. It is the only home I have ever had and the only place I would ever call my turangawaewae (place to stand). I am a part of this place, it is a part of me. I feel much the same about protecting our native flora and fauna and land as I do about protecting my children.
“They are our national monuments. They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don’t have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder, but what we do have is something that is far, far older than that. No one else has kiwi, no one else has kakapo. They have been around for millions of years, if not thousands of millions of years. And once they are gone, they are gone forever. And it’s up to us to make sure they never die out“.
Conservation can seem daunting when you step back and look at the scale of the problem. But doing your bit doesn’t have to be huge or onerous, it can be as little as reconsidering what shrubs you plant or taking the time to trap rats. Here are some ideas to get you started. One or two steps are all that you need to do to begin to make a real difference in your own backyard.
Ways to help NZ native species in your own back yard:
Purchase of a humane predator trap e.g. Goodnature traps – a humane, simple, and effective way to manage pest species in your back yard and around your property.
Careful management of pet cats and dogs. Keep track of your pets.
Go out into nature and teach yourself and your tamariki to value the things that are hidden in plain sight. Taking time to go out and see the amazing animals and plants we share NZ (and our world) with. Visit places like Pukaka Mt Bruce, Zelandia, Nga Manu, Hinewai, Orokonui Ecosanctury or just take the time to go on a day walk or and overnight tramp in our national parks and reserves. It is easy to overlook the beauty that is all around us if we spend our lives with our eyes on a screen or cooped up inside.
Create your own mini native sanctuary in your backyard.
If you own a farm consider planting native shelter, fencing your waterways, creating native forest corridors to allow birds and insects etc to move from one place to another. Perhaps you could consider it a “tithe” for nature. Consider doing the same thing no mater what the size of your property.
Consider gifting trees as gifts for family and friends. Trees That Count is a great option.
Although native species might not have evolved to withstand mammalian predators, and the impacts of humans on their environment, the fact remains that they are the best and most perfectly adapted species for NZ’s unique environment. A humbling thought is that kiwi have been in NZ longer than humans have exisited! Many NZ species have withstood millennia of climate changes in the past and they are still here. We should not write them off as failures simply because they cannot withstand introduced predators and landscape destruction. We don’t have any more right to exist than our native species do. In fact they have been here in NZ longer than humans so perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that they have more right to exist here than we do.
De-extinction is no substitute for conservation. At the moment there is no way back. We can’t (yet) bring back what we have lost. Even if we can one day bring a species back it will always have limitations. It would be better not to find ourselves needing de-extinction in the first place.
We humans want quality of life, we seek happiness. Part of what makes us happy is variety and interest and beauty. If we allow species to be lost, then the world will be less interesting and permanently dulled. Unknown possibilities will be lost. Every time we think we have exhausted the options from nature, we discover another valuable commodity that is derived from a species we could have over looked. For example spider venom may be able to treat nervous system disorders.
Our species and our whole way of life depends on the other species we inhabit this earth with. If we don’t value them, then I don’t see how we value ourselves or our own future as a species.
It’s that time of the year again when resolutions are big and good intentions abound. A New Year and people are encouraged to break bad habits, make lifestyle changes and follow through on promises to change for the better. Why not make a simple change to reduce your plastic consumption? Ban the bag has become a strong movement over the last few years and one that seems to finally be getting some support from the general public as reusable bags become commonly available. Reusable bags are now the norm for many people heading to the supermarket. I am thrilled to see the change because single use plastic is a slow moving disaster in which we are drowning without being aware of it. It is everywhere including isolated beaches. We take it for granted that everything has to come in plastic these days. We have bought into the idea that everything must be sealed for your protection. Hygiene is impossible, we are told, without cardboard boxes being sealed in plastic wrap. Our fruit and veges need to be plastic wrapped we are told to prolong the shelf life. It wasn’t always like this. My Grandma and Grandpa managed without plastic, and they didn’t wring their hands and wail that they didn’t have supermarket bags to use as bin liners. There is a future without plastic – just like there was a past without plastic.
Plastic single use supermarket bags are on the out, and boot liners are gone from Mitre10, but single use produce and bulk bin bags are still a problem. When I began this journey I tried to go plastic free for lent. I figured that going without plastic packaging would be hard but I never imagined that it would be impossible to achieve at the shops I was habitually using. I was struck the first time I walked into the supermarket (full of good intentions) just how big the plastic problem is. I walked in to the fruit and vegetable aisle and was immediately confronted with a sea of plastic trays containing pumpkin and cabbage halves sealed with cling film, spring onions in plastic sheathes, apples in plastic bags, lettuces in plastic bags, tomatoes and strawberries in plastic punnets, and it just goes on and on. Even the loose fruit had plastic stickers on each individual piece, and the only way to get some home was to either take them loose or put them in single use plastic produce bags. The bulk bins were the same. There were no alternatives available and everyone was happily using and consuming the plastic without a second thought.
I was deeply confronted by our plastic dependence as a result of that attempt at a plastic free lent. So much so that I researched and went shopping for alternatives. I found them at Commonsense Organics, but they are available online, and many different shops. I purchased several sets of Rethink organic cotton reusable produce bags and a set of reusable bulk bin bags. I was impressed with the rethink brand because they are biodegradable. I didn’t want to replace single use plastic produce bags with reusable plastic netting bags. For me the organic cotton seemed like a better option. I also found some produce bags made from old net curtains at a local farmers market and they have been great too. Obviously you could even make your own. I have saved a variety of bags including a Soap Nuts bag, and a fabric rice bag. I have also been given a few. I use them every shop with no trouble. Printed sticky labels can be easily wrapped around the drawstrings. I can’t recommend them enough. They can also be used as delicate bags when you do your laundry. I have had a large number of curious people approach me to ask where I got them from. These people do want alternatives and they are far from alone.
I think the problem is that most people just don’t know about the alternatives. Some people will comment and criticize the plastic bag ban by saying that it doesn’t go far enough, or that it is pointless because there are still plastic wrapped cucumbers and plastic produce bags. I don’t take that view however, I think big change of any kind is hard and that is why people resist it. But it isn’t so hard to make small changes. If you don’t want a plastic wrapped cucumber, you don’t have to buy it. You can buy an unwrapped short cucumber instead, or you can grow your own. If you don’t want to use plastic produce and bulk bin bags, rejoice! There is good news. There are alternatives and they are easy to use. If you are frustrated by the endless sea of plastic packaging start making active choices to avoid it where possible, and if it is unavoidable take five minutes to write to the shop or manufacturer and tell them you would prefer an alternative.
I did exactly that at my local New World. After I found reusable produce bags I was concerned that they are not really a visible option for people, or at least, not as visible as reusable shopping bags which are now found everywhere. I wrote to New World and suggested that they should consider stocking reusable produce bags in the produce aisle. I told them about Rethink bags and a few other brands I had come across. I told them that I had tried to avoid plastic packaging and found it hard to know where to begin. The email took five minutes to write. I have to admit that I didn’t expect much to come of it. But a few days later I got an email reply. They were thrilled to hear from me. They had not heard of rethink or other brands of reusable produce bags, and thanked me for bringing them to their attention. Better still, they said they thought it was a brilliant idea and told me to watch the produce aisle because after hearing from me they had ordered them and were planning a stand of them! I was thrilled to say the least. A month later, a new display popped up with various sizes of reusable produce bags and also string carry bags. One 5 minute email made a difference in my local supermarket. One small but significant change and as a result it is easier for people to opt for an alternative to single use plastic produce bags.
So this New Year why not get some reusable produce bags and make a step on the journey to reduce your plastic consumption.
It’s been a few months since I last posted a blog. I now find myself in a new place in my life, and there are new and exciting possibilities. I guess life kind of got away from me. One phase of my life drew to a close, and a new one opened up. We bought our first home! I still can’t believe it’s true even as I write it. It has been a hectic few months as we went through the process of buying it, and then packing up, moving, unpacking and settling into our new life. We have left the suburbs behind and are now living on a two acre block of land in the country, surrounded by fields. It gets properly dark at night, there are no more street lights to keep me awake. I can see the stars. No more damp rental properties with flooding issues and difficult landlords, no more trying to grow food in containers and pots. We are now living the dream and loving it.
A big thing about why this move feels so right for me is because most of my adult life I have been trying to capture a style of living that was almost impossible to achieve in a rental property in the suburbs. We now have the freedom to explore new ideas in ways we never could before. We are creating a large vegetable garden and so I will be able to explore things like permaculture, and organic gardening. I have always loved gardening and I am really excited by the idea of trying to become self-sufficient and grow as much of our own food as possible. I am also deriving much joy from having space to make a cottage garden such as I have always dreamed of.
We weren’t allowed pets in our last rental property, and this bothered us a lot. Caring for animals and pets is incredibly valuable to help teach children empathy and also how to value the animals we share the earth with. Finally, after nearly six years our kids have pets to care for. We own chickens again, and are reveling in the joy of fresh laid eggs every day, and the fun of getting to know our chooks personalities and quirks. We have two tiny baby chicks to watch grow. We have six sheep in total, four Gotland ewes and two bottle fed pet lambs donated to the kids by our lovely neighbours. We had two of the sheep shorn last week and we now have the fleece to prepare and use. Learning how to wrangle sheep has been both challenging and fun! I know not everyone can live on two acres like we are – and not everyone has time or space for gardening, but you can always do what you can. A herb garden in pots is a great way to start if you are pressed for space and time! Kids love getting involved, in fact our kids love it so much we had to buy kid sized garden forks and spades.
I have lots to share in future blogs, and I have lots of ideas on the go again so watch this space! I have been researching micro-plastics and I have an interesting blog in progress on that. I have a number of products to review that we have trialed as a family, from straws, to shaving products and deodorant. We are exploring solar electricity options. I have a success to share where I convinced a supermarket to stock a sustainable product, and I will be able to share our learning as we embrace organic gardening.
I have had time to adjust to our new life and now I am gearing up to get back to blogging again. I see new horizons and I can’t wait.
I don’t know about you but I am on a journey to a more sustainable and plastic free future. Encouraged by my kids I started to look around me and I was dismayed at the plastic I found. We are hearing much more about the problem of plastic these days. People are talking about banning plastic carry bags, cafes are opting for biodegradable coffee cups, the Queen has decided to ban plastic drinking straws on her estates. We hear regularly about the effects of plastic in the ocean, and we keep hearing about the great plastic island floating in the Pacific. Children are learning about it at school through things like Enviro Schools, and parents are encouraged to pack plastic free/packaging free lunchboxes. At the same time we (as a country) are grappling with how to recycle the plastic we consume – particularly now that China has decided not to continue taking all our recycling.
We kiwi’s get through a lot of plastic each year. Take single use plastic carry bags as an example. Did you know that it is estimated that we get through a staggering 1.29 billion single use plastic bags every year? New World and Countdown have both announced that they are going plastic bag free. Pak’n Save already charges for bags. Our local New World has started stocking reusable produce bags recently. But this is really only the very beginning, because plastic is everywhere. Supermarket bags are only the tip of the iceberg.
When I say plastic is everywhere, I mean everywhere. When I started this journey to reduce my plastic consumption over a year ago, I knew there was a lot of plastic coming into our house each time I went grocery shopping, but I underestimated just how hard it would be to avoid it, even for a short time. I challenge you to take a minute next time you are in the supermarket and wander up and down the aisles looking for things that are completely plastic free. It’s hard, even things where plastic packaging is completely unjustified are swathed in it. The cucumbers are in plastic wrap. Lettuces and spring onions come in plastic bags. At the bulk bins there are plastic zip-lock bags. We put our produce into single use plastic produce bags. Even glass jars with metal lids are likely to contain a plastic lid lining or seal of some kind. Tins are often lined with plastic. Toothpaste may come in a cardboard box, but it is still in a plastic tube with a plastic lid. Many cardboard packets contain hidden plastic trays or bags. The list just goes on and on. Fruit comes in plastic bags or hard plastic punnets. I emailed Yummy to ask if the stickers on their fruit are biodegradable. They replied that they are not.
Often plastic is used for no obvious reason, for example, the other day I purchased some free range chicken at my local New World. It came in a plastic tray, and was covered with plastic cling film. Air tight and water tight, there was no chance of stray meat juice escaping from this packaging. When I got it home I was frustrated to discover that once the cling film was removed there was another heat sealed plastic film covering the tray. It was perfectly intact, airtight and leak proof. Why two layers of plastic? Here’s another example. Earlier this year I bought a pack of two erasers. They came on a cardboard backing enclosed in plastic like batteries do. Inside were two individually plastic-wrapped erasers. I have no clue why erasers have to be double packed in two separate plastic layers. Perhaps it should also have come with a plastic sticker on the package saying “sealed for your protection”! Things like this (and non-biodegradable stickers of fruit) make me really angry. We just don’t need this kind of plastic packaging, but it is very hard to avoid. I don’t think many people are thinking about the sea or the food chain when they become unwitting consumers of plastic as they feed their families. For most people the plastic problem is out of sight – out of mind. Some times you need a jolt to bring you up short and help you to face reality. For us that jolt was Mana Island.
Last month we were privileged to be able to take our two youngest children on a Kiwi Conservation Club trip to Mana Island. This science reserve is not open to the public, you have to be a volunteer or work on the Island to visit. It was a really wonderful trip and we saw lots of birds including North Island robins. There were about 17 enthusiastic kids and about 15 parents all heading out on the boat to learn and contribute our time and energy. Our work for the morning was a beach clean-up. Looking at the beach when we arrived I saw lots of paua shells, sea weed, driftwood, and the grey rounded beach stones and sand that you expect on beaches around Wellington. I didn’t see any obvious sign of litter or plastic. It just looked like a wild, windswept, empty, clean beach – but I wasn’t looking closely. We walked back to the ranger station with DOC Rangers Otis and Caitlin who pointed out penguin tunnels and tracks criss-crossing the vegetation. Then the group was divided into older and younger kids and the older kids went off to track down takahe inland with the Rangers.
The younger kids broke into two groups with two huge sacks each. One group headed south, and our group headed north. I was a bit skeptical about how much we would find on that beach, since it seemed pretty pristine when we arrived. I wondered how long it would take the children to tire of this activity and start to complain. Picking things up is not usually an activity that kids are enthusiastic about. Ask any teacher or parent, and they will tell you that picking up anything causes all kinds of reasons why they shouldn’t have to do it!
But these kids embraced this beach cleaning activity with enthusiasm and gusto. The parents were just as keen. We all wandered along the beach eyes down scanning the stones and paua shells for signs of plastic. It took a few minutes for me to spot my first piece of plastic – a yogurt pottle caught under a bit of driftwood. It was white and I almost mistook it for a sun-bleached shell. Then, suddenly everyone seemed to be finding things. The kids made friends while they searched, imaginatively using sticks as ‘plastic detectors’. The sacks rapidly filled with a huge assortment of plastic. Chocolate bar wrappers, old shoes, a dolls leg, fishing line, sunglasses, plastic rope, water bottles, pump bottle lids, milk bottle lids, soft drink bottles, clothes pegs, ice-cream containers, margarine containers, meat trays, cigarette lighters, felt pens, plant pots, straws, McDonalds ice-cream sundae cups, single use takeaway sauce containers, cable ties, plastic farm animals, plastic strapping, bubble wrap, cling film, a toothpaste tube, fragments of plastic so brittle it broke apart in your fingers, and so many yogurt pots I lost count. We found a huge piece of plastic about a meter across that was branded with the name Talley’s. This long list is only a fraction of what we found. Nameless bits of plastic that couldn’t be identified were everywhere. This plastic litter was concealed between beach stones, under driftwood, and caught under low beach scrub where the wind and waves had tossed it. Those penguin tracks we saw when we arrived often contained windblown plastic flotsam and jetsam. I have never been so ashamed of my plastic consumption as I was on that beach. After just one hour we had filled our sacks full to the brim with plastic. If it is hard for us (who know what plastic is) to spot plastic on what seems to be an ordinary beach, how can we expect birds and fish to avoid it?
It was an eye opener. My kids enjoyed every minute of it. It felt good to be picking it up, like we were undoing just a little bit of the damage we have caused with our plastic consumption. My bird crazy 7 year old said wistfully that she wished we could have walked around the whole Island and “cleaned all of the beach”, not just a little section. My 5 year old son insists that we pick up the plastic he sees on the way home from school each day. In a 15 minute walk from my house to the school I can easily pick up a supermarket bag of plastic rubbish. I do this regularly. On Mana Island the rubbish floated there, but around our towns it gets there because people drop it, sometimes within sight of a rubbish bin.
I am so frustrated by needless plastic packaging. I have very little say over whether I get it or not, most of the time it is close to impossible to find an alternative in the mainstream shops. I’m also frustrated by how hard it is to find plastic-free alternatives to things like toothbrushes when I’m in the supermarket.
We have to do something! We have to do it fast too. Our clothes, our shoes, our food, our kids toys, our bags, our dish brushes, our straws, actually our whole lives are now enveloped in plastic. But you can make changes. Repair, reuse, reduce, recycle. Say no to plastic. If every one of you who read this blog contacted a company who is using needless single use plastic and let them know you aren’t happy, or contacted a company to ask if they have considered an alternative to plastic packaging, then together we could let these companies know that we want change. They won’t change unless you and I – the customers – demand it. Every action (no matter how small) has real power to effect change. Look for alternatives, let companies know you want change, and for the sake of our environment, pick up any plastic you see, before it ends up on a beach like the one on Mana Island.
What do I class as ethical and why? Put simply, being “ethical” is all about not sawing off the branch you are standing on. For me sustainable is ethical because it is important to protect and safe guard our future. If something is unsustainable then it cannot continue endlessly. Many of our planets resources are finite. Once they are gone they are gone. They can’t be utilised again. Likewise, reducing plastic consumption is ethical because the damage from plastic waste (in our oceans for example) is obvious. It is frightening to realise that the plastic bottle top in the gutter will outlast you, by a long way. The single use plastic we throw away each day will outlast all of us. It will still be here in our grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s lives. That plastic bottle top might not be visible in ten years but it will still be there, floating out at sea, in a landfill, or as microscopic bits in the soil.
To our knowledge this planet is the only place in the universe that has both the ability to sustain life, and life itself. That makes both us and our planet unique. I believe that “ethical” is a choice that looks to the future, of our human civilisation, our planet, and the life that inhabits it. These things are what we will pass on to our children. Our children are educated at school about climate change and environmental awareness. They are encouraged to be planetary and global citizens who care about the world and all those in it. The disjunct between what we teach our kids and practice ourselves is huge. The dis-junction is even greater when you compare what our kids are learning and what the government is doing. If we wait for someone else to take the initiative, then we will be waiting a long time. If we want to see a positive change then we need to take individual action.
Socially responsible options are ethical (such as fair trade). That should be obvious, but for many people it isn’t top of their minds when they shop. Choosing products where human beings and the environment have been protected from exploitation makes sense for everyone. Why would you choose exploitation over freedom? The same goes for animal friendly products. Exploited animals can’t exactly mount their own protest. They rely on us to make ethical choices wherever we possibly can in order to protect them.
How to make an ethical choice? Well it turns out that isn’t as simple as I thought. Having said that, the good news is there is lots of advice out there and a lot of it is common sense! On this blog journey I hope to unravel some of the complexities I’ve run into and make it easier to make truly ethical choices. I plan to share what I learn with you. In the meantime here are some things to bear in mind.
Do your own research. If you want to know if something is ethical, research it. If you can’t find anything out then ask them. Look into the main trusted eco-labels or certifications in New Zealand (and globally) eg Fairtrade.
Always look for concrete claims that actually mean something, for example “made from 100% recycled plastic” actually tells you something about what the company is doing and how it is sourcing materials. Even if the claim seems meaningful, look for a certification to back up their claims. A claim that says “100% recyclable” won’t tell you much about what the company is doing, whether it is ethically disposed of comes down to the consumer not the company.
Beware of irrelevant or vague claims that mean nothing. For example “eco-friendly”, “natural”, “good for the planet” “chemical free”. An example of irrelevant labeling is a pack of toilet paper that is labelled biodegradable! Words like “degradable” can also be suspect. After all most things are degradable even plastic, it just takes geological time periods to do it, and the by-products of degradation may be toxic. Be cautious of terms like “organic” unless it is certified as organic by an independent organisation e.g. GOTS.
Beware of “greenwash” or “ethical-wash”. Greenwash is the practice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service or technology in order to present an environmentally friendly and responsible image to the public. The same approach can be used to promote a false image of a product or company in terms of human rights and ethical working conditions. For example some companies claim their products are ethically sourced but provide no certification or proof of this. Alternatively, they provide a whole line up of certifications no one has ever heard of. Another trick is to market a product based upon its plant based ingredients while the fine print lists a long line of artificial ingredients with no sourcing data.
As a consumer you need to feel confident about your rights. You can and should make complaints about companies you think are being deceptive. Did you know that anyone can make a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority in NZ and those companies then have to substantiate their claims? The Commerce Commission, which administers the Fair Trading Act, can prosecute companies it believes have a false or misleading claim. The commission has investigated companies about their green marketing and has taken cases to the courts.
At the end of the day I thought this blog post about ethical choices would be empowering. I guess it has been, but mostly it has felt overwhelming. You can find a product that is plastic free and compostable. But that same product is more than likely made in a factory in Asia with no ethical certification to indicate a concrete commitment to social responsibility.
You can find a range of products that are certified for various things, but not all certifications are equal. It feels extremely daunting trying to wade through the various certification schemes to find the best ones. After all, I am just an ordinary average person trying to get a handle on all this for the first time myself. Most disturbing for me is how hard it is to get real information about human rights practices from some companies. They will attempt to brush aside my concerns with vague assurances that the working conditions meet their own personal moral standards. How on earth to judge when presented with this state of affairs? I am beginning to see that perhaps individuals asking questions directly, and being prepared to shift their purchasing to more ethical companies is the only way to make a lasting impact.
For me, I am committed to reducing plastic and choosing socially and environmentally responsible products wherever I can. And I am committed to making my spending choices known by personally contacting companies. I am committed to trying to make sure that the person sewing my clothes, printing my books and making my food has the same rights and opportunities that I do. If our positions were reversed, I would hope for someone to do the same for me.
Hi! My name is Katie, and this is my first ever blog post. It is both exciting and daunting. I am a Kiwi, born and bred here in the land of the long white cloud. I am a Mum to three amazing human beings. The SUST blog is a way for me to try and make a positive change in this world of ours.
How did I get interested in this ethical eco plastic free stuff? Why does it gnaw away at me? Why do I feel unable to walk past that piece of plastic blowing along the street? Why do I feel distressed in the supermarket when I look at the bright colourful aisles where practically every item is wrapped in plastic? When I am shopping for clothing how can I avoid clothing that is not ethically made? These questions eat away at me.
This journey started for me when my children began to take notice of the world around them. Naturally it started at ground level. Most parents will be familiar with this stage. It is the stage when every pebble, stick, flower, leaf, feather, and acorn must be picked up and taken home. Everywhere we walked we accumulated these natural treasures. But also they noticed every plastic bottle lid, empty takeaway box, coke can, and broken pen as well. I would explain that some things were treasures and some things were rubbish. As they got a little older, they wanted to put the rubbish where it belonged (in the rubbish bin) and asked why other people didn’t put their own rubbish in the bin. Every parent understands how conversations with kids in the “why?” phase can tangle your brain in logic knots (even those without children have heard about it). I struggled to explain so they understood. They insisted we had to do something about it ourselves. And they were right. We do have to do something about it ourselves. Single use, throw away plastic is something we all have a responsibility to do something about.
My children were the reason my eyes were opened. They changed the way I viewed the world. They changed it permanently.
I decided to try becoming a more ethical house for the season of lent. I resolved (prompted by my children’s desire for urgent action) to make more ethical shopping choices and try doing without plastic packaging for a month. I had a few reusable shopping bags that I already used at Pack N Save. I knew it would be hard, but I had no idea just how hard it would be.
On the first day of being an ethical and more plastic free house, I rocked up to our local New World with my reusable shopping bag. Just a quick trip to get a few things for the kid’s lunches and the evening meal. I stood in that shop and my eyes were opened even further. There were virtually no Fair Trade options for the things on my shopping list. I had forgotten about the produce bags for fruit and vegetables. Then I began looking at the plastic. Just about everything I wanted to buy was either plastic or wrapped in it!
With a rising sense of desperation, I purchased fruit and vegetables loose, without any bags. I chose a couple of Fair Trade items. I got bread in a paper bag from the in-store bakery. I chose glass bottles of pasta sauce. I got pretzel’s, almonds and raisin’s from the bulk bin and put them in paper bags from the bakery section. Then I was stuck, and reluctantly I put a few ordinary items in my basket. At the checkout I nearly forgot my reusable shopping bag but remembered at the last minute. Afterwards I went home and struggled with my conscience.
I had never in my wildest dreams imagined how challenging it would be to become less dependent on packaging. I was shocked to see for the first time how few alternatives there are to plastic products. I was deeply troubled to see how few items are branded Fair Trade. I began to think about the future my children would be inheriting.
My 7 year old daughter is in love with birds. She is particularly smitten with New Zealand’s unique and wonderful birds. Her favourite is the Kaka. She begged for a stoat trap for her 6th birthday to protect a breeding colony of Kaka in the Coromandel and was thrilled to be sent a photo of the first flat stoat that it caught. She is bothered by the sea birds that die each day with tummies full of plastic instead of fish. She wants to save them all. I want to help her.
I have been keen to support Fair Trade products for a long time. But when my 14 year old daughter volunteered to help find an ethical brand to go in our church newsletter each week, I began to realise that there are choices out there. It’s just so hard to find them in the Mall or at the supermarket.
My 4 year old son asked me to put a rubbish bag in my handbag. He wants to be able to pick up the rubbish left to blow in the streets at eye level for little people like him, walking home from kindy. So far I’ve kept forgetting….. but tonight I put a plastic supermarket bag from our dwindling supply in my handbag.
SUST is designed to help us all to change the way we do things by making choices easy. My goal is to try and help people to move toward the goal of leaving a feather light footprint on this planet and our society. This blog is a way for me to try and make a difference, not for me but for my children, and my children’s children. I want them to know I cared. This blog is a journey, and I don’t know where it will take me. This is the beginning……. Watch this space.