Cutting waste a cup at a time

Otago Farmers Market administrator and duty manager Scarlett Michelle with some of the reusable...
Otago Farmers Market administrator and duty manager Scarlett Michelle with some of the reusable products that are being promoted at the market. Photo: Christine O'Connor
The popular Otago Farmers Market is taking a softly softly approach to becoming a low-waste market. Sally Rae reports.

At the popular Otago Farmers Market in Dunedin, organisers are moving towards a low-waste market.

But rather than  take a big-stick approach, the intention was to take customers and vendors on that journey, trustee Tess Trotter said.

Momentum was building and, when trust members started talking in June about the global challenge Plastic-Free July, they realised they were already doing "heaps of stuff" at the market.

A waste minimisation strategy was put in place three years ago, and that had continued to build at a time when there was much more media attention around waste minimisation and responses from supermarkets and big-box stores.

The trust had been having some "big conversations" with both vendors and customers and, rather than simply banning plastic bags, it was approaching the issue with a waste minimisation focus.

"What we really want to do is not ban anything but to support people," Ms Trotter said.

There are more than 70 vendors at each Saturday market,  selling a wide range of produce. Each vendor had their own needs, and so the trust was supporting all waste efforts while also doing what it could for customers.

General manager Kate Vercoe had spoken to every vendor about what plastic they were using and also what waste they had at the market, as it was not all just about plastic, Ms Trotter said.

For vendors, their biggest challenge was interacting with customers and for those customers to want to return.

The trust’s job was to maintain energy in the market and trustees were conscious of disrupting the journey people were on.

Whenever potential new vendors applied to join the market, they were asked what packaging they used. Increasingly, vendors were using glass packaging — whether that was for peanut butter, juice, milk or wine — that could be refilled at the market.

The market even has its own coffee cup "library" where customers could borrow mugs while at the market for their morning coffee. 

After being  returned, the mugs were washed ready for the next weekend. That was proving "super popular", Ms Trotter said.

It was sponsored by Laura Cope, the  enthusiastic waste crusader behind Use Your Own Cup (UYOC), a not-for-profit enterprise that encouraged people to steer clear of single-use cups.

It had an online cafe guide which had various components, such as whether cafes were pet-friendly, have vegetarian options and encourage people to bring their own re-usable cups. All profits went to charity.

Ms Cope approached the Otago Farmers Market after seeing an impromptu mug library at a market in Queenstown. The response was "wonderful".

UYOC was a vehicle for social change. Speaking bluntly, Ms Cope said some people’s habits were "terrible".

It was about taking positive actions to make change in an industry that was ‘inherently wasteful" and making people think about their own personal stewardship and responsibility. It had to come from the consumer and so was aimed at encouraging consumer responsibility, and cafes then responded to that.

She urged people to have that conversation with themselves — did they really need to have a disposable coffee cup that they used for four minutes and then threw away? —  and "step up".

"You’re an adult. All this stuff about ‘live for now’ drives me nuts. Don’t live for now, that’s a terrible way to live," she said.

Acknowledging she was "trying to change bloody everything", Ms Cope said it was not impossible, and there was potential to make Dunedin a city that was disposable cup-free.

Compost bins were situated throughout the Farmers Market and compostable waste produce was taken to YouthGrow where it was shredded to make compost.

Some vendors picked up the likes of surplus ripe fruit at the day’s end and used it for  jams etc, or made bird feeders from lard.

"A lot more vendors are helping each other out and doing that kind of thing which is really neat," Ms Trotter said.

This month, the market has held a competition across social media asking market-goers to take a photo of their waste-free market kit. 

The things that people did were "quite amazing"; one woman had knitted "jerseys" for her milk bottles so they did not break.

Some came armed with not only their reusable shopping bag, but also their chiller bags, beeswax wrapping, reusable jars and bottles.

The market was now working with Bags for Good, a community-led organisation that used fabric otherwise destined for the landfill, to set up a library for shopping bags.

Reusing soft plastics (predominantly plastic bags and punnets) in the market was a channel for the plastic bags already out there, she said.

"Let’s have a positive approach. We don’t want people to feel judged," she said.

Then University of Otago law student Ryan Everton won the 2012 Audacious business challenge with his reusable ecological cup Globelet.

It became a fully-flung business, supplying reusable systems and products that eliminated single-use packaging.

The business had "nailed" festivals and small events and was transitioning into the sports industry. Mr Everton’s dream was to have Forsyth Barr Stadium "100% reusable".

Its next move was cities, with radio frequency identification (RFID)-tracked cups. Sponsors were being sought to get cities to go fully reusable. A term the Globelet team had coined was "sustainable convenience". Many people were product-focused, but Mr Everton believe it was better to be systems-focused.

Speaking from Sydney, Mr Everton said the company was about to expand into Asia and North America.

He still  had  a soft spot for Dunedin, and would love for the University of Otago to become the first disposable-free university.

There were so many opportunities to "change the game" and build something for the better.

The issue in-market was there were many people trying to do "some random things in the middle", which often were  "not actually green". There was still a long way to go, he said.

Packaging Council of New Zealand executive director Sharon Humphreys said the industry’s current challenges lay in "halting the hysteria" whipped up over such issues as plastic bags, which presented a very real threat of being extended to packaging generally.

The packaging industry would continue to react to the changing dynamics of trade, and the scale and speed of that change would be driven by factors which were largely outside its control.

"In this context, there has never been a more urgent need for a balanced debate because right now facts and evidence are coming a poor second to emotive images, such as pictures of divers swimming through society’s detritus, and sea-life consuming plastic bags."

The organisation had long advocated for a broader discussion about the role of packaging alongside waste management and recycling, she said.

Unfortunately, attempts to lift the debate in that direction were being distracted from and undermined by the very limiting focus on single-use solutions.

"Without in any way wanting to be dismissive of efforts to eliminate the misuse of plastic bags, an all-consuming focus on such an issue does little for the more urgent challenge of achieving the elusive national plan for waste management and recycling," she said.

The Packaging Council had long held the position there was a requirement for a national strategic plan for waste management and recycling in New Zealand, she said.

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