Twelve Steps to a Pristine Paradise

By Rebekah Gupte

The first time I came to Norfolk Island, I fell in love with the place, and knew I wanted to live here. The history, culture, tradition, natural beauty and friendly people make it a unique and wonderful part of the world.

I have a background in Environmental Science, and had worked with several community organisations working towards reducing waste and living in closer harmony with the land. I knew when coming here that I wanted to get back to nature, live with the land, and use my knowledge and experience to make a difference.

Living in India as a child, I remember train journeys. At train stations chai (tea) was sold in rough, handmade clay cups, and when people finished drinking it, they threw the cup out the window, to return it to the earth it came from. Going back to India as an adult I saw that the tradition was the same, with people throwing their cups out the window of the train after drinking. The difference was that the cups were now plastic and what we saw on the side of the railway tracks were mountains of these little cups.

I was surprised when I first discovered that Norfolk Island still burned much of its waste. Though when I thought about it, I realised it was just like the tea cups. One hundred years ago burning rubbish was a common practice, and most homes in Australia had their own backyard burn pit. Most of what was burned back then was natural products – ashes to ashes - and it made sense.

Since then, so much of our rubbish is man-made: plastics, treated building materials and more packaging than we need. Norfolk Island has continued in traditional ways of waste disposal, but the waste they are now disposing has changed and multiplied, and with greenhouse gases, toxic fumes and chemicals leaching into our waterways - we need to learn new ways to deal with the waste.

In 2019, the Indian government announced bans on the manufacture, sale, distribution and use of single use plastics from July 2022. The country responded quickly. Plastic bags were replaced with paper ones, made out of recycled newspapers. Clay pots returned to the train stations and the plastic cups disappeared.

On Norfolk Island I believe we are uniquely poised to do similar things. Being a small, isolated, close-knit community, we can come together and make changes for the betterment of our island more easily than others can elsewhere.

During the month of August 2021, along with Prinke Eco store, I ran the Norfolk Island Waste Reduction Challenge. We challenged people to follow a twelve step plan for waste reduction, and guided them along the journey. Through the local newspaper, radio and social media, we championed local businesses who were doing their bit to reduce waste on the island, and challenged the community to change their mindset. We asked them to rethink, research, reduce and refuse, to adopt a circular economy ethos to keep items out of the waste stream for as long as possible. We encouraged all residents to reduce the need for new items (repurpose, refill, reuse, repair, regift and refill) and finally to adjust our food waste habits so that our residual waste is largely reduced. All of the posts for the month can be found on the @Plastic Free Norfolk Island Facebook page.

One of the most interesting parts of the challenge was the tours to the Waste Management Centre. The Norfolk Island Regional Council graciously allowed us to take busloads of people through the centre, learning everything about how our waste is managed and what happens to the various waste streams. Every question was answered and we all left with a great appreciation for the people who deal with our waste, and a better understanding of what we as individuals can do to manage our own waste better.

The response from local businesses was fantastic. Not only did businesses come on board and sponsor amazing prizes for those who entered our challenge competition, but many businesses took on board the waste reduction strategies we were encouraging. For example, the local butcheries all encouraged and supported people to bring their own containers for their purchases and one of the local cafes started using long life milk containers as coffee cup holders.

This challenge was just a start, but the community support behind it shows that the people of Norfolk are ready to embrace the change, and continue the legacy of this beautiful island for future generations to enjoy.

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