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“Go Green to save the Planet” - Rod Donald

“Go Green to save the Planet”

Address to Kuranui College Assembly for Green Week

9:00 am Tuesday, 19 September 2000, Greytown

Speech notes

Rod Donald MP

Green Party Co-Leader

He mihi aroha, tena koutou katoa. I’m absolutely delighted to be invited to speak to you today as part of your Green Week activities. I think it’s great that Kuranui College has a week of activities each year to highlight the need to look after our environment and the role each one of us can play in keeping our towns clean and protecting natural areas. I’m impressed by the wide range of activities you have organised especially the rubbish-athon and no-car day, and I’m intrigued by the Green Jelly eating competition.

I first got involved in the environmental movement when I was at school. As a fourth former I attended a seminar on water pollution in the Avon-Heathcote Estuary to help me do a fourth form project on pollution. That was a turning point in my life. I decided to join a group called Ecology Action and at the beginning of my fifth form year I helped set up a group at my college.

Our first project was to clean up the school stream. You wouldn’t believe the amount of bottles and other rubbish we pulled out that day. Later that year we picked up litter along the side of the Main South Road as part of Conservation Week. I was depressed by the amount of rubbish that people threw out of their car windows without a second thought. But I naively thought, having picked up the rubbish and made a statement to the paper that littering was bad, that people would stop doing it. How wrong I was. When we went back to the same stretch of road the following year there was even more rubbish, largely as a result of the arrival of Kentucky Fried Chicken in town.

That experience started me thinking that while personal responsibility is vital when it comes to looking after our environment, businesses also need to take some responsibility for the rubbish they produce and the government has an important role to play.

While I was at school I also set up a recycling centre. Initially we collected newspapers, then cardboard and glass. Lots of parents and pupils brought along their recyclables on Saturday mornings to the depot which I ran out of the school swimming pool changing sheds. One year the truck was late picking up the newspaper and the opening of the swimming season had to be delayed a week because the changing sheds were chocka full of paper!

When I left school at the end of 1975, I didn’t go to University but instead ran recycling drives for the Canterbury Environment Centre and then worked full time for the Centre as its first paid worker. One of our projects was to clean up that same stretch of the Main South Road again with pupils from my old school. This time we decided to dump the litter in Cathedral Square and send a letter to each of the companies that produced the rubbish. From memory, the bulk of it was cigarette packets, soft drink and beer bottles, and fast food packaging, mainly KFC. I can’t remember whether any of the companies replied, but they certainly didn’t pay up the 5¢ per item fine that we charged them.

My determination to tackle the waste problem at its source led me to propose a packaging tax which companies would have to pay at the point of manufacture, and the government would then use the money to clean up litter, recycle rubbish, and provide dumps for what couldn’t be reused in some way.

I also went to a national anti-litter conference that year where Coca-Cola announced they would introduce one-trip plastic bottles. They said that consumers deserved the choice, but they would continue to provide soft drink in refundable glass bottles. Jeanette Fitzsimons, who is now also a Green MP, and I argued strongly against the Coca-Cola plan. We lost, and now our dumps are filling up with plastic bottles and kids no longer make their pocket money by selling back the glass ones to the local dairy.

My next full time job was working for the Christchurch City Council as their recycling officer. My job was to publicise the city’s first pilot recycling scheme, and market the waste products we collected. I count the scheme a real success in all respects excepting its cost. We got very good public participation and also managed to find markets for what we collected. However, we still made a financial loss. Some of that was because of how we ran the scheme, but a lot of it was because competing new materials were too cheap. Often that’s because we don’t put enough value on non-renewable resources such as oil and products that are made from it, such as plastics. Governments have also had a habit of subsidising the creation of new products, such as growing pine trees, but aren’t prepared to do the same when it comes to recycling newspaper.

New Zealand’s clean green image is more fiction than fact.

In the 20 years since I worked for the Council each New Zealander is producing 60% more waste every year. That increase is three times the average increase for OECD countries. The lessons we learnt then need to be applied even more urgently today today. When you’re dealing with rubbish, the first goal is: don’t produce it in the first place. Increasingly we are running out of places to put it and we are also learning that you can’t just dump it anywhere because nasties leach out of rubbish and into waterways and dumps also give off smelly gases. There’s no such place as “away”. So it’s much better to stop materials entering the waste stream than try to figure out what to do with them when they come out the other end.

The next best thing to do in the “waste hierarchy” is to redesign products so that they can be easily re-used or recycled. Then re-use them where possible. So the idea for bottles and other beverage containers would be to have a small number of different sizes and shapes of bottles so that a product that somebody makes in Invercargill can be put into the same bottle which somebody has previously filled in Auckland and sent south, and vice versa.

If you can’t re-use something then at least you want to be able to recycle it into something else. Then redesigning the original products is important so that you don’t have too many different materials mixed up together which makes it difficult to separate them and turn your waste into something new.

The waste hierarchy works well for human-made products. When we’re dealing with organic matter, which makes up about half the domestic waste stream, then the best thing to do is to compost it at home, that’s if you don’t have chooks or pigs to feed it to. We all know good compost grows the best greens, so if you want to have a healthy vege garden then it makes sense to turn all your food scraps, lawn clippings and garden waste back into fresh new soil.

And that’s really what being a good environmentalist is all about. We need to follow natural cycles as closely as possible if we want to look after the precious planet we live on and share with a multitude of other species.

There’s a new term for recognising the need to work with nature, not against it. It’s called “natural capital”. It’s all about recognising that our air, our soil, and our water are the capital on which we rely for our survival in the same way that a business relies on its capital to finance its income generating activities.

A good business doesn’t consume its capital base as though it’s income. In the same way, it’s vital that we respect our natural capital by living within the income it can generate sustainably. That means curbing the amount of pollution we put into our rivers and oceans, being careful about what we put on our soil and our plants, and watching what we put into the atmosphere. Nature has an enormous capacity to cope with our pollution, but it’s not infinite.

Just this week we are learning that the CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons which have been leaking out of our kitchen refrigerators for years are continuing to enlarge the ozone hole over Antarctica. This year it’s 4% larger than the largest hole two years ago and covers an incredible 28.3 million square kilometres. The consequence is that more of us are likely to get melanoma this summer, which could lead to terminal cancer.

It’s estimated that it takes 15 years for CFCs to reach the ozone layer. The depletion of the ozone hole is a classic example of the long-term impact of an action we didn’t fully understand at the time. Your generation is paying the price for what my parent’s generation did.

It’s important we learn from those mistakes. It’s important that we don’t just try to preserve pockets of nature but make all our economic activity ecologically sustainable and, for that matter, socially just. On a global scale, poverty is actually one of the biggest threats to the environment.

My Youth MP at the recent Youth Parliament, sixth former Courtenay Mackie, spoke about natural capital in her speech. She talked about a concept known as the Triple Bottom Line where a business and the government look not only at whether something is economically profitable but also the impact it has on the environment and society. I’d like to quote what she said.

“This system changes the way the success of a business is measured. Business is not just about making money. The value and worth of New Zealand and indeed world business must also be measured in the quality and level of their social and environmental impact. Commerce should imitate nature. In nature, everything has a purpose and a use. Nothing goes to waste. Waste must be reduced to as close to zero as possible.

“One of the greatest challenges, in my opinion, is changing the belief so firmly entrenched in our national psyche, that everyone must own their own car. Cars pump pollutants such as carbon monoxide into the air every day. Incentives must be provided to encourage people to use more environmentally friendly methods of transport. Public transport systems must be upgraded and facilities for cyclists improved.

Time is running out. The initiatives must be implemented soon. Only action now will preserve this beautiful country for future generations.”

I totally agree, and I hope you do too. Please take Courtenay’s message to heart for No Car Day and the Rubbishathon on Thursday. I hope you will carry on doing good environmental deeds beyond Green Week. It’s really important that you take personal responsibility for your actions wherever you can. That means not dropping litter, recycling and composting, riding a bike, using public transport.

You don’t have to do all this alone. It’s a lot more fun being green if you join with other people and get involved in community initiatives to make our towns greener and save our country from destruction.

Another obvious avenue is to get involved politically. I first joined the Values Party when I was 16 and now I’m in a position to bring about some of the changes I was so keen on then. For example, I am working on a Private Members Bill to bring in a packaging tax, which would also include deposits on beverage containers. As a party, The Greens are also pushing for eco-taxes such as a carbon tax and a pesticide tax so that as a country we are discouraged from wasting resources and creating pollution and encouraged to run our businesses and our lives in an environmentally sustainable way.

I’m far from perfect. While I rode the bike to work yesterday in Christchurch and came by train to Masterton, I still flew on an aircraft in between. But I am doing my best to leave the world in a better place than I found it and it is up to you to carry on, because after all, you are the next generation of leaders. I wish you well as you take up that challenge and congratulate Kuranui College for educating you about the importance of respecting and restoring our environment.


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