Island thinking

Posted on February 10, 2008

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Waiheke Waste Resource Trust

We were in Auckland recently and in a spare day took the ferry over to Waiheke Island (think suburb of Auckland). Walking down the street, who should we bump into but our old friend Logan Muller. His family have lived on the island since the 1930s.

Logan pointed us to the Waste Resource Trust. This is a particularly active community environment centre, nicely positioned in a cluster of services: library, gallery, cafe etc. It does all the usual reduce-reuse-recycle activities and resources and is proud of its big activity, the Junk to Funk show.

What caught my eye though, was this text, used widely on WRT material but also the official city council “welcome to Waiheke” brochure:

Waiheke is an island community. Everything is imported. And everything thrown away is exported. Think about that. Help keep Waiheke unique.

I think this is great. While it ignores the things produced locally (quite intensive viticulture) and the exported things becoming somebody-else’s-problem, the thought that all the inputs and outputs from a system can be seen crossing each by other on the wharf is a powerful image.

It is also a powerful financial message:

All these people create rubbish that has to be removed from the island at considerable cost. Each tonne costs around $200 in transport costs alone and for the year ending in June 2005 a total of 4,389 tonnes of residual waste was taken off the island.

Denise Roche describes the Waiheke experience as a “good news story” (pdf), the total diversion rate is close to 5000 tonnes (pa 2005).

WRT started with research into community attitudes and behaviours. They also looked closely at existing material flows. They did a random waste audit of1000 rubbish bags to measure and document the types of waste going to landfills. They found that about 75% of the waste inside them could be diverted through composting or recycling.

The key to their success has been to make sustainable behaviours the social norm:

Essentially what we have been attempting to do is to change the norms of behaviour – or social norms. That means we are trying to create a climate where it is normal to reduce waste and where it is not normal to throw your recycling in the rubbish or produce lots of waste.

The strategy has been twofold: introducing the infrastructure to make the new normal the easy choice; and a change from a focus on compliance to investing in social capital.

To facilitate the new norm has involved the reintroduction of kerbside recycling, a staff of 23 dedicated to clean waste management (the previous landfill approach employed 6 on the island), aligning business flows (such as acting as a broker for waste cooking oil).

The results from the 1998 attitude survey were also integral to developing an education strategy to promote waste minimization directed at four separate sectors of the island. – These being: businesses, schools, residents and visitors.

Each of these sectors have required often quite different approaches and we have found that to engage these different groups in recycling and waste minimization activities we have had to personally explore their waste issues and find solutions that work for them rather than attempt to apply a one-size-fits all solution to a problem we assume might be occurring.

On Waiheke people chat to one another and we want waste and waste reduction to be a hot topic for discussion. In the social marketing literature the term is described as ‘one-to-one’ education – and on Waiheke we have focussed on this method quite deliberately.

What can we learn from this experience?

1. The notion of an island is a powerful one. Perhaps we should paint coastlines around our institutions and force everyone and everything across a virtual wharf.

2. We need to examine the barriers people face in changing how they behave. The responses need to stem from that and include both tailored infrastructure and considerable investment in the social capital of what is normal.

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