Keeping it real in glacier country

Meet the locals bringing recycling to town in South Westland’s tiny Okarito

South Westland has the kind of brilliant, raw scenery that makes us feel proud to be Kiwi. It’s the stuff of inspirational ads, sweeping helicopter shots and uplifting music. Think 100% Pure New Zealand and the clean, green cliché.

Landscapes like these have been used to sell New Zealand to the world – and they’re how we expect our country to be. But look closer and the picture gets a great deal murkier. How we deal with our everyday rubbish, for instance, is often embarrassingly slack. Fortunately for a bunch of remote South Island towns, one motivated couple has made this challenge their own.

The story of how Rainer and Cindy ended up in the picturesque seaside village of Okarito reads a bit like the plot of a feel-good romantic comedy. Originally a logistics manager for a German newspaper, Rainer Oehmig and a friend were touring New Zealand back in 1992 when a kismet moment occurred.

The incident was a motorbike accident and the auspicious location, the Okarito turnoff on State Highway 6. The resulting damage to limbs and bike meant Rainer and his friend spent a week recovering at the local backpackers.

There are far worse places to be stranded. The one-horse town of Okarito sits on the edge of New Zealand’s largest unmodified wetland and in the shadow of the Southern Alps. Its charms obviously got to Rainer, because for the next seven years he made an annual pilgrimage back. He was holidaying there in 1999 when American adventuress Cindy, herself on a cycle tour around New Zealand, pedalled into Okarito and Rainer’s life.

At South Westland Rubbish Removal’s operating site in Franz Josef, waste is sorted into tin, aluminium, clear plastic, coloured plastic and milk bottles. It takes about six hours to sort the waste and another four to squash it down to one compacted block. Meanwhile, green waste is fed into a machine called ‘Big Hannah’, where it’s heated and decomposed in a slowly rotating drum. Through this process, 15 tonnes of green waste are diverted from landfill each year. The resulting compost is sold in the onsite shop

Cindy moved to Germany to continue their romance, and after a few more years of boomeranging back to Okarito for their holidays, the couple finally bought a house right on the beach. They rented out two rooms as a bed and breakfast and managed other properties in the village, including a local hostel and campground.

Okarito is located in a special part of the South Island. The West Coast is known for its geographical and geological diversity – a place where nature has developed in isolation and kept the ghosts of Gondwana alive. The Te Wahipounamu area (or ‘the place of pounamu’) is so unique it’s been listed alongside the Egyptian Pyramids, Machu Picchu and the Serengeti National Park as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Given the significance of South Westland’s landscape, you might assume that basic environmental practices such as recycling would be well established. Astoundingly, only isolated outbreaks of recycling activity have been observed along the coast – and Glacier Country residents couldn’t even put their bottles and cans out on the kerb until 2004, when Rainer and Cindy Oehmig singlehandedly built the South Westland recycling network.

Rainer calls himself “a German import who just won’t go home” and his passionate (if unusual) fascination with all things plastic and glass is backed by a sharp mind for business.

The project was born in 1995 when fellow German Richard Walle created a small recycling system at the local campground. Rainer and Cindy saw an opportunity and leapt for it, finally bringing kerbside recycling to Okarito’s residents – all 30 of them.

Electrical appliances are disassembled and metal components recovered, while television glass is given to a local glassblower. Rainer says this time-consuming process doesn’t make money, but it does make sense

In 2005, the pair acquired South Westland Rubbish with an ambitious plan to expand their terrority. Their empire now encompasses the rest of Glacier Country, including deliveries three times a week to the recycling hub in Franz Josef. The rubbish run takes in more than 170 kilometres of New Zealand’s finest scenery, extending from Fox Glacier to Hari Hari and stopping off at four remote villages in between.

It may not have the same image as other planet-friendly pursuits (such as saving dolphins from fishing trawlers) but setting out to stop rubbish from ending up in giant holes in the ground is a pretty noble hobby. New Zealanders dump 3.4 million tonnes of waste into landfill annually, and about 282 thousand tonnes of that is classed as ‘hazardous’. Of the landfills we’re busy pouring stuff into, 7,200 are ‘potentially contaminated’ and 716 pose a ‘potentially high’ risk to our health and the environment, according to one Ministry for the Environment study. Cindy and Rainer’s goal is to substantially decrease the amount of junk headed their way.

With his eye on the future, Rainer’s busy collecting silage wrap from farmers to recycle. Not one to sit still, he’s also looking into acquiring his own glass recycling plant and buying a machine to generate biofuel from waste kitchen oil to operate the fleet

Meanwhile, South Westland’s tourist population is a moveable feast generating its own detritus. Up to five thousand people a day sightsee along the coast at the height of summer, and international visitors bring high expectations about how things should be done. We Kiwis are supposed to be upholding our eco-tourism brand, after all.

Luckily the concept of ‘zero waste’ is gaining traction around the world. In 2007 the Italian town of Capannori adopted a zero waste strategy, and since then its 60,000 residents have managed to recycle a whopping 82 percent of their rubbish. Great things are also happening in New Zealand; in 2009, kerbside recycling in Kaikoura achieved an 87 percent diversion rate. Rainer and Cindy aim to see the same happen in Glacier Country within four years.

But it won’t be easy. With the majority of Westland Council’s paltry 1,393 ratepayers living in or around Hokitika (a two-hour drive from Okarito), there’s been little investment in local infrastructure.

A 25-tonne truck and trailer hauls the recycling to Christchurch, where it’s sold to the Christchurch City Council CCC2 programme. CCC2 on-sells the recycled materials to local businesses or ships them in bulk to overseas buyers. Every effort is made to minimise the operation’s carbon footprint, and these trucks deliver a load of hay to Hari Hari first before backloading recycled waste to Christchurch

Luckily the existence of a company like South Westland can act as a catalyst for change. The Franz Josef YHA was recently awarded an Enviro- Gold mark for its outstanding ecofriendliness – which would have been impossible without help from Rainer and Cindy, says manager Danielle Weitzel. And without the intrepid pair, there wouldn’t be recycling bins available for public use at Lake Matheson, Fox Glacier Village, Franz Josef Glacier Village, Whataroa or Hari Hari.

One day smarter product design, clever manufacturing processes and minimal packaging will become mandatory but, until then, recycling is the only smart choice. In the meantime, the Oehmigs from Okarito are working hard to show us the way.

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