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Waste not

Raglan's Xtreme Zero Waste is turning waste management on its head - and, as Sophie Barclay discovers, creating a more resilient, creative, trash-free town in the process 

The Xtreme team outside the dump shop 

When Xtreme Zero Waste’s Rick Thorpe first met Maori activist and local kuia Eva Rickard in the early 90s, he told her he wanted to work in the harbour to improve local fisheries. A marine biologist by trade, Thorpe was somewhat perturbed by Rickard’s reply. “She told me my first job was to close the landfill, recycle as much as I could, prevent the leachate from going in the harbour and then come back and see her.”

In 1998, the landfill did close, but only because it was practically overflowing. The Waikato District Council (WDC) decided to transport the town’s waste to a landfill far, far away – but the community, led by Raglan’s older population, had other ideas. Fed up with a consumer-driven, throw-away society, they wanted waste reduction and recycling, not simply more landfilling.

Rescued jumpers and upcycled fabrics 

So, with the town’s blessing, six locals took up the heroic mission to research and implement a new ‘waste’ paradigm for Raglan. Thorpe and his partner Liz Stanway joined Pine Campbell, Tuihana Bosch, Katarina Mataira and PJ Harworth, and eventually Xtreme landed a one-year contract to collect recycling in 2000.

The group struggled along, separating green waste, paper and cardboard – but lacking sufficient investment to buy proper machinery until the appointment of visionary Richard Bax to the WDC in 2007. Recognising that Xtreme had passion and the backing of the community, Bax gave the group their first break – a seven-year contract.

Mel McMahon re-vamping a jumper in her studio 

As a non-profit community enterprise, Xtreme has been incredibly successful and now employs 26 staff, including 17 full time. Profits are channeled into creating more jobs or creating better recycling services.

Economically, Xtreme’s emphasis on local employment and investment means that the $382,790 cost to ratepayers results in a $666,600 spend in Raglan. A study commissioned by Landcare Trust shows that this money is likely to go around the town three times before it eventually gets banked.

Focusing on environmental and societal outcomes, Xtreme hold courses such as home composting workshops onsite – which seems counter-intuitive for a company making money by collecting waste. “We go for ethically driven motives rather than the profit driven”, says Thorpe. “We are more interested in the final outcome of what it means to our community rather than us as a business. If at the end of the day there was no waste and no need for Xtreme, then so be it”.

Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to be dispersed because we've been ignorant of their value - Richard Buckminster Fuller 

Currently, glass and plastic are hand-sorted into colours and types; this means the resulting recyclable products are perfect. Once the wood, green waste and metal are also removed, around 75 percent of waste is saved for re-use with the remaining 25 percent sent to landfill. Auckland Council, by comparison, estimates that only 15 percent of an average Auckland rubbish bin can currently be recycled. Xtreme is also experimenting with a food waste collection trial, which would see an impressive 90 percent of waste diverted.

Xtreme boasts a treasure-crammed dump shop, overflowing with bedding, books, board games, stacks of chairs, roof tiles, crates of records, a huge ‘free box’ filled with shoes and clothing. Being Raglan, there are also plenty of wetsuits and battered surfboards. Clothing is collected for local charities, and community groups and teachers can buy resources at half price.

A meticulously sorted metal yard displays washers and pipes in various sizes and piles of gleaming whiteware, and the wood yard sells recycled rimu and pine, old windows, rows of hinges and outdoor furniture. The creatives who man the wood yard also whip up furniture or up-cycled wooden items, when time allows; the finished products are sold onsite and at the Whaingaroa Environment Centre (WEC) in town.

WEC was established in 1997 by Xtreme’s Liz Stanway and others, and she still sits on the board. WEC and Xtreme work together to promote zero waste and the two share a green column in the local newspaper. Xtreme gives WEC’s curtain bank their better-quality curtains and WEC stocks products made from Xtreme’s castoffs, such as reusable nappies made from rescued flannel sheets. “We sell this stuff to encourage local arts and up-cycling, not for us to make a profit,” says WEC coordinator Bexie Towle, who also works part time at Xtreme.

The zero-waste ethos is clearly rippling through the town. In 2013, Raglan was the first New Zealand town to adopt Plastic Free July – an initiative embraced by businesses and locals alike. During March’s Maui’s Dolphin Day celebrations, waste is also reinvented in the Recycled Raft Race. The race involves a ramshackle array of vessels, made from 80 percent rubbish (think plastic-bottle rafts, cycle-powered ships and boats made from baths, surfboards and tyres). Most of the local contestants go to Xtreme for their boat-building supplies.

Of the 26 staff that Xtreme employs, at least two are artists. Mel McMahon and Jodi Collins both use up-cycled objects to create unique, quirky pieces that are sold at the artist-run Hello Art Studios and Gallery on Bankart Street.

McMahon’s ‘Pimp My Jumper’ campaign started off as a way to reduce the mounds of woollen jumpers biffed out because of a holey elbow or a missing button. McMahon revamps her finds, adding hoods, pockets and patterns in a variety of eclectic colours and fabrics. Meanwhile Collins takes old wooden trucks, interesting T-shirts and old fabric, and fashions whimsical, vintage -inspired toys, colourful cushions, bunting and badges.

Xtreme was also the launchpad of Raglan local Ben Galloway’s Trash Footwear. By sourcing tyres, jeans, waterproof roofing tape and coffee sacks for Galloway, Xtreme helped the shoemaker with the creation of his unique handmade shoes, now stocked nationwide. See www.good.net.nz/heart-and-sole

Local marae are also taking up the zero waste challenge, thanks to Xtreme’s co-manager, Jacqui Forbes. After a successful pilot at Whaingaroa’s Poihakena Marae, the Para Kore (No Waste) programme has spread to more than 50 marae in Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki and the South Island. The knowledge and expertise of the Xtreme Waste team is also being harnessed by the Auckland Council to steer the city towards better waste management and to model waste recovery centres on Xtreme Waste.

And the fish are returning – thanks largely to the hard work from Whaingaroa Harbour Care, who created wetland systems to filter toxic leachate from the old landfill (as well as replanting most of the streamside areas in the Whaingaroa catchment to improve water quality). Xtreme have also done their bit, planting more than 6000 trees, including flax species for local weavers.

From its humble beginnings, Xtreme Zero Waste is now a core part of Raglan’s identity, cementing its reputation as a resourceful town that solves its own problems and puts community at the forefront of all decisions. Resilience, creativity and healthier waterways are just some of the benefits.

Sophie Barclay is a freelance journalist specialising in matters environmental