TV3’s Top 5 Waste Reduction Tips

Our Daily Waste’s Dr. Sharon McIver featured in a piece about recycling and reducing waste on TV3’s Story, 4th April, 2016. Clink link below for story.

Veggie bagsThe top 5 tips are:

  • rinse your recycling and remove all contamination
  • buy smarter – have a hierarchy of packaging from reusable to landfill and choose the most sustainable option
  • use reusable veggie bags such as those available from Surfing Tribe or The Rubbish Whisperer
  • take reusable containers to your favourite sushi or other takeaway and ask if they can put it in there without all the extras
  • take a reusable coffee cup to cafes for takeaways – you might even get a discount.

    Reusable coffee cup

    Reusable coffee cup

THINKING BEYOND PLASTIC – Futureproof your packaging now

by Dr. Sharon McIver – First published by 17th August 2015 

Balloon on beach at Waiheke Island

Balloon on beach at Waiheke Island

Pollution from plastics is one of the biggest environmental crises the world faces. The C02 emissions released during the production, transport, and recycling stages is damaging enough, but plastic’s poisonous reach goes far beyond the sky and raised sea levels. It leaches chemicals in landfills, chokes waterways and causes floods, and once in the ocean, kills vast quantities of sea-life and enters our food chain.

Beyond environmentalism however, our continued use of it makes no economic sense in the face of peak oil – if we must continue to use oil, and not keep it in the ground, then surely it can be better applied to a host of other industries than producing mountains of packaging that only gets used once.

I sort through rubbish bins. I do not work at a recycling plant, but my empathy goes out to anyone who does – trash (whatever its stream) is disgusting and I cannot imagine what it must do to one’s soul to work amongst mountains of it every day. I only deal in bin or skip loads at a time (and it’s usually fresh), but every piece of plastic I handle makes me feel a little sadder for humanity.

240l bin lids with ODW signage

240l bin lids with ODW signage

So why do I do it? Firstly, I want to live in a world where disposable plastic does not exist, and secondly, I have found a way to make a living out it. My waste prevention and recycling consultancy Our Daily Waste specialises in customised recycling signage, which helps reduce contamination so that recycling will get recycled. We also run recycling systems at events, where we divert as much as we can from landfill, and remove all contamination through constant sorting of bins.

Recycling is not sustainable

Yet the list of what is recyclable is shrinking rapidly, and much of it is so contaminated that the buyers are rejecting vast quantities, which must then be sent to landfill. What is and is not recyclable is different around the country, and depends on what your local council or waste company can find buyers for, and the vast majority of it is shipped offshore, much of it to China.

Even aluminium, which when recycled saves 95% of the energy and CO2 emissions required to process primary product, is mostly sent overseas, and that is only the 48% of it that does get recycled. According to 2010 figures listed on the Smart Packaging website, less than 1% of aluminium manufactured at Tiwai Point in Southland is from recycled product.

Hence, it is a fallacy that recycling is environmentally or economically sustainable. It requires fuel to transport, sort, process into raw materials, and reprocess back into something that will probably not be recycled again, all of which is increasing CO2 emissions. Even recycled plastics will eventually be discarded or become eroded, degrading into microfibers that poison our soil and oceans. In the case of popular recycled goods such as polar fleece and minky blankets, the microfibers are being washed into the waterways via our washing machines while the items are still in use (

Even so, recycling is still better than using virgin resources, and it helps us conserve our remaining oil. It is also better than litter or landfill, and we need to do something to try and reduce the 2.5million tonnes of landfill New Zealanders dump every year and the damage that causes to the environment and atmosphere.

The end of oil

Rob Hopkins, founder of the transition movement (which assists communities to shift from oil dependency to local resilience) writes in his 2008 book The Transition Handbook that although researchers could not agree on when peak oil would occur, the majority of estimates were falling: “between 2010 and 2015, with very few credible researchers placing their forecasts beyond this 2020 bookend. Having said that, the exact date of peak oil is really not so important. What matters is the fact it is inevitable . . . and we haven’t even begun to think about what we might do about it.” (2008: Totnes: Green Books Ltd. p. 29)

Two years ago I did a business course and was asked what the biggest threat to my social enterprise was. “That I’m successful,” was my reply. The Our Daily Waste mission is to eliminate waste from Aotearoa, and if we do that then we could be out of business. However, seeing that virtually every industry creates waste, and that our speciality – packaging – now includes things like Nespresso pods and supermarket giveaways, that scenario is a long way off. I will also be in a position to see it coming and will diversify appropriately.

And this is what I do not understand about the companies that manufacture, process, and use plastic. They know that at some point the raw materials will become prohibitively expensive, and eventually run out altogether, yet they are not finding ways to diversify into reusable, or truly recyclable products (such as aluminium) before that happens.

Legislation to ban disposable plastic would go a long way towards encouraging industry to find solutions, but going by National’s recent announcement that rather than an outright ban on plastic bags they will trial a recycling scheme for all plastic packaging, New Zealand will not be joining the ranks of countries such as Germany, South Africa, and Italy any time soon. For those of us working to reduce plastic, the irony was not lost that a scheme placing the onus on consumers (rather than industry) was released during Plastic Free July. The Auckland trial relies on consumers taking their packaging back to the supermarket, but from my experience of people’s ability to provide clean recycling, it will have to be tightly managed for it to work, and I doubt whether there is funding for that (

Hence it is up to industry and consumers to find a way through this – the industry by offering goods wrapped in non-plastic packaging, and the consumers by refusing to buy anything that is not.

Brand recognition

As consumers we have little choice but to go along with the packaging available. I would love to be fully plastic free, but the harsh reality is it takes time, planning, and often costs more, and my energy is better spent trying to change the infrastructure.

Littered pie wrapper

Littered pie wrapper

Plastic packagers should be wary of where their logo ends up (think of all those supermarket bags used for dog turds). Sorting bins or picking up litter can be tedious, so I amuse myself by reading logos and promotional blurbs, and attaching a meaning that inverts the intentions of the company (as in “nothing says death and decay quite like a Mother Earth wrapper slowly degrading on the beach”). If I find a particularly offensive rubbish item I share my thoughts about it on my social media pages, and the best examples are used for public talks where I teach other people to make these connections also.

I began the waste reduction journey 15 years ago, but the plethora of websites and social media pages now dedicated to the subject indicates that I am no longer an anomaly. And, whilst we may represent a small percentage of shoppers overall, the businesses that support our quest for better (or no) packaging earn the kind of loyalty that most retailers dream of. For me, buying things in reusable containers and then taking them to bulk food stores such as Bin Inn has had the biggest impact, but there are other brands I am loyal to because they provide reusable, or low waste alternatives, including Soapnuts, GoBamboo, Harrington’s, and Ecostore.

Bin Inn shop

Bin Inn shop

Elsewhere, I choose brands that use glass, aluminium, tin, cardboard, or paper packaging, all of which are recyclable, or compostable. When I shop at Farmers’ Markets I take reusable veggie bags, and I support the stalls where packaging is optional, avoiding altogether those that bag up the majority of their produce. The stalls I buy from may not be making a huge profit, but because of their ecological principles they are more likely to survive economic or environmental collapse.

Waste Prevention

So what can a business do to earn lifelong loyalty from buyers like myself, and futureproof their packaging?

The answers of course lie in the past, some of it not that distant. Plastic soda water bottles became commercially viable in the 1960s when polyethylene was invented, but were not commonly used here until the 1980’s. Hence, my childhood is bright with memories of finding glass ‘fizzy drink’ bottles in the park and spending the refund on lollies. The butcher wrapped our meat in newsprint, and everything in the hardware or haberdashery stores was measured and put into paper bags which were used to start the fire.

Go back further and you find cheese wrapped in muslin, wax or leaves; liquids decanted into earthenware or metal containers; and wine stored in animal skins.

Of course, the argument for changing to plastic was all about hygiene and I understand that some of these options are untenable for health and safety reasons, but ironically we now have less exposure to germs to build antibodies, and are also at risk from the petrochemicals that leach into our food via the plastic. The answers we seek lay in using our access to technology and centuries of ideas to find solutions that borrow from the past but satisfy our higher expectations of what packaging should do.

Swappa-crate beer

Swappa-crate beer

Reusing glass is an obvious solution. It can be sterilised easily and is attractive. In Germany they have beer centres where bottles are washed, refilled, capped and sent out, with each brewery having its own distinctive bottle. Because the beer is available in crates, support of local breweries has increased (

We should be able to buy anything that can be bottled in reusable glass, but wouldn’t it be great if we could also buy goods in jars that could be reused as well? If enough businesses switched to these products there would be a demand for localised glass sterilisation plants, and perhaps even beer centres.

In Christchurch, the Nature Matters Milk Company have been delivering milk to cafés in stainless steel urns, which saves the space required to store and dispose of all that plastic, and they have plans to put in vending machines using reusable glass bottles. Using a mobile milking and pasteurising station where the milk is pasteurised instantly and bottled within minutes, along with sustainable farming practices, the milk is considered to be a high quality and perfect for frothing.

Cafés are also leading the charge by selling reusable takeaway cups, and many of those selling their own beans also sell or provide reusable tins, ensuring that their logo is seen every time their customers make a coffee.

Environmental branding

Reusable items such as cups, water bottles, cutlery and stainless steel takeaway containers offer premium branding opportunities where your logo is seen repeatedly, and associated with innovative and ecologically principled thinking.

Soap nuts in refillable calico bags

Soap nuts in refillable calico bags

For non-food packaging, businesses selling items that can be weighed, measured, or counted (hardware, crafts, feed stores) could sell first fills in attractive reusable packaging such as buckets, tins, jars, cotton zip bags etc., and then offer discounts when people bring them back. Buying items without all the bulky packaging also reduces shipping volumes and transport costs.

Given the extraordinary marketing and brand loyalty opportunities of reusable packaging, it is surprising that it has not already been dreamed up by the 21st Century equivalents of Mad Men executives.

The Edmonds ‘Sure to Rise’ logo became iconic in New Zealand, not because of the quality of the baking powder, but because of the tin. Instead of having your packaging ripped apart and crumpled before being discarded (or worse), think about how your logo would look displayed in cupboards and tool sheds for years to come – an example of packaging that cares about the future.

PLASTIC SHAMTASTIC – why we need legislation to reduce plastic, not just recycle it

By Dr. Sharon McIver, Our Daily Waste

The author's non-recyclable waste for July.

The author’s non-recyclable waste for July.

It’s the end of another Plastic Free July, and once again – even as a waste prevention consultant – I have failed to be plastic-free.

I have been slowly reducing packaging for fifteen years, taking reusable containers to Bin Inn, shopping at Farmers’ Markets, and making my own hair and skincare, but there are a few die-hard items for which I have yet to find affordable and convenient alternatives: bread bags, chocolate and cheese wrappers, oat milk cartons, and most recently, chicken feed bags.

Being plastic free is bloody difficult, because the infrastructure to support us is lacking. Even a voluntary 5c levy on plastic supermarket bags failed because there was no law backing it up.

Hence, Green MP Denise Roche spent Plastic Free July travelling around the country promoting her plan for a private member’s bill either banning or introducing a levy on plastic carrier bags. At the Lyttelton meeting (22nd July) I learned that New Zealanders use 1.6 billion plastic supermarket bags a year, and that the average time they are used for is 12 minutes.

Also discussed was the Government’s announcement the weekend before of a $1.2 million trial scheme to recycle soft plastics in the Auckland area.

Announced to coincide with both Plastic Free July and the Green Party’s push to ban plastic bags, the scheme won’t reduce plastic but will rely on consumers to voluntarily return plastics to a supermarket collection point, from where it will be collected by Australian recycling company REDcycle and initially transported to Australia to be made into park benches and playground equipment (to eventually be worn down by wind, rain, and teenagers).

Environment Minister, Dr. Nick Smith called the scheme “a more sensible approach than a ban or a compulsory levy on just plastic shopping bags”, citing that shopping bags make up only a small percentage of waste overall (a figure likely to include industrial and building waste). Yet, even if the scheme is rolled out nationally, the amount recycled may not represent a large percentage of that waste either, as not everyone will be motivated to separate their packaging, store it, and remember to take it back to the supermarket before bin day rolls around and an easier option presents itself.

At Roche’s meeting, Rob De Thier, the owner of Lyttelton Supervalue pointed out some flaws in the proposal. He had limited space for extra bins, and was also concerned that any contamination would make them smell and attract flies and rodents.

He is absolutely right. I have sorted hundreds of recycling bins, from events, schools, universities, and housing areas, and when audited by the number of items in the bin (rather than weighed) contamination rates can be as high as 90% and are rarely below 30%.

According to Lyn Mayes, manager of the Public Place Recycling Scheme that will manage the project the scheme will take the following: “bread bags, frozen food bags, toilet paper packaging, confectionery and biscuit wrap, chip bags, pasta and rice bags . . . sanitary hygiene packaging – basically anything made of plastic which can be scrunched into a ball”.

Bottom layer of a contaminated recycling bin.

Bottom layer of a contaminated recycling bin.

That is a dream list, but I bet Dr. Smith has never had to climb into a recycling bin to remove a base of gunk and nappies built up over several empties where the bottom layer stayed put. With biscuit crumbs, chips, peas, rice, and used tampons (which are often put back into the packaging) as potential contaminants De Thier’s concerns are valid. The bins could end up smelly, overflowing and a health risk in an area where food is sold.

As much as my social enterprise Our Daily Waste relies on people wanting to recycle better, the reality is that easily accessible, unmonitored bins will be filled by anyone with rubbish, including freedom campers and those who do not want to pay council landfill rates.

Sharon Humphries, executive director of the Packaging Council of NZ (made up of businesses that manufacture, distribute, use and dispose of packaging) also questions how well the scheme will work, suggesting that it is up to consumers to change their ways. She falls short of laying blame with the people making and selling the packaging, claiming that the Packaging Council: “strongly advocates for a whole-of-life approach with each part of the supply chain doing its bit to reduce overall impact and ultimately waste. [. . .] members are active in their respective parts of the supply chain commencing with innovative design to reduce impacts from cradle to grave.”

But where is this innovative packaging? It is not showcased on their website and I have yet to see much evidence of it on the shelves, or for that matter, in the bins. And how does it stack up against the mountains of landfill created by the bulk of the Packaging Council’s members?

Voluntary schemes are not enough – we need legislation that targets the producers. Currently, waste levies are collected at the dumping end, but by adding levies to all plastic packaging at the cradle stage, there will be a financial incentive for packagers and their customers to find truly sustainable alternatives, supported by funding collected from the levies.

A voluntary recycling trial is a band-aid solution to a much bigger problem. The production of plastic is depleting our remaining oil supplies, adding to C02 levels, choking our oceans, and entering our food chains, and it is time we gave it up. A levy on plastic carrier bags will be a start, but we need a government prepared to target all plastic packaging and support truly innovative design.

Perhaps then, we could all achieve a Plastic Free July.

Future Friendly Packaging?

biodegradable plates

Compostable potato plates

(This article was originally published by Dead Weight Loss on 15th January, 2013 here.)



The first time I heard about compostable potato plates around ten years ago, I went to some effort to source them for family functions, enduring much greenie-baiting, yet feeling smug when (conveniently) handing the bag to my brother-in-law for his compost. At the time, I truly believed that bio ware[1] was the solution to non-sustainable packaging.

Upon becoming a recycling educator in 2010 however, I discovered that, for waste companies dealing with public waste collections, the plates, cups, bottles, cutlery and bags that make up the ever-growing range of these ‘biodegradable’ products are in fact one of the biggest blocks towards getting clean comingled recycling, for the following reasons:

  • bio ware items look similar to plastic or cardboard counterparts and if sent to comingled recycling confuse both the machines and humans tasked with sorting
  • if put in with legitimate recyclable product they can render whole batches useless
  • if found in large quantities amongst recycling (such as at an event) the entire bin or skip risks being sent to landfill

In addition, there is little financial incentive for waste companies to sort the bio ware from the recycling because as Sandy Beath-Croft, Environmental Sustainability Advisor at Hutt City Council notes: “An extra person would be required to pull them off the sort line, and if the end product has no market, it doesn’t get done.”[2]

With our small population making investment in recycling plants risky, our recycling mostly gets sent offshore, and New Zealand waste companies are under pressure from Chinese buyers to provide uncontaminated product. Because there is a lack of policy and education as to what stream bio ware should go in, the increase in the use of these products threatens to reduce the market for our legitimate recycling.

bio cups

Some of the PLA lined coffee cups currently available in New Zealand

Yet these ‘compostable’ items make big claims: they are “eco friendly” (Bio Supplies) “environmentally friendly” (Paklink), or “future friendly packaging” (Ecoware, BioWare), and there are many scientific articles written on the low carbon footprint and environmental benefits of using plant-based materials rather than petrochemicals for packaging.[3]

What the majority of bio ware distributors failed to do on entering the New Zealand market however, was ensure that the waste industry had the infrastructure to process them. With the result that for most municipal waste collections – home, work, events, etc. – these items should actually be sent to landfill, which, according to bioplastics manufacturer Biome, is precisely where they should not go: “the conditions in well maintained landfill sites are too dry for degradable plastics to actually rot. [. . .] More work needs to be done [. . .] but in the intervening time the precautionary approach is to try to ensure that all biodegradable bioplastics are kept out of landfill because they permanently sequester carbon.” [4]

The obvious solution would be to put them in organics/compost collections to be sent to commercial composters, and some composters can take them, one of which is Wellington’s Kai to Compost, which can take most items (as long as they are Certified compostable) including PLA and timber, potato or corn starch products. Their reference guide warns customers to “watch out for greenwash as not all products that say they are compostable, biodegradable or bio based, can be composted.”[5] It also notes that the Waste Minimisation Organics sector group are developing a standardised verification logo for compostable food packaging but that this is still at least 12 months away.[6]

Yet, the bigger problem is that most commercial composters operate high rotate systems that process food and garden waste very quickly. All of these items require longer processing times, and may take several passes through the system before they break down fully. The risk is that the chunks left in the compost can jam up farmers’ machinery, and if left on a paddock, potentially cause livestock to choke. In addition, each item would have to be removed and checked at each pass to ensure it was a biodegradable product, prohibiting affordability.

Hence, unless the distributor, vendor or end use consumer takes responsibility for composting these items, in most areas in New Zealand bio ware will not be composted commercially, and recycling educators (who would otherwise embrace compostable packaging) struggle to educate against their use, when most people want to believe that they are doing the right thing.[7]

One waste education team that has gone public with the false claims of Charlie’s Eco Water Bottles is Wanaka Wastebusters, who challenged the claims about the bioplastic bottles on Campbell Live. Media spokesperson, Gina Dempster recommends that if you wish to use any bio ware item, you should check first whether the local composting facility can take them. She explains that bioplastics work best “in a situation where there is an easy collection method. They don’t work so well when they’re just sent into people’s homes”. She too warns against sending them to Landfill.[8]

A matter of scale

Yet, as Amanda Martin from Christchurch business Eco Express notes, bio ware currently only makes up a small percentage of the total waste in New Zealand.[9] She believes that the future advantages far outweigh the current issues, provided that the items are Certified compostable.

Martin primarily supplies the commercial sector (in particular, supplying bin liners for food waste collection), and takes product stewardship seriously: “We work with individual clients to identify the most suitable waste outcomes for our products. The outcomes will vary between regions depending on the availability of commercial composting facilities and home composting, but in our experience, the outcomes are mainly very positive.”

She understands the frustration felt by the waste industry with regards to those companies who do not commit to ensuring that their products will be composted, but believes that this is still no reason to “let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. She notes that “as Certified compostable packaging is produced from annually-renewable, plant based materials, there is an opportunity to reduce our petroleum dependence, utilize plant by-products or crops not suitable for human consumption, and plant-fibre previously wasted or burnt.” [10]

Plant waste to packaging to compost

The use of waste products to create bio ware came up recently as part of a discussion on waste I took part in at the Temporary Economic Zone Aotearoa (TEZA). Held at the New Brighton Creative Quarter in Christchurch, TEZA combined art, performance and workshops, and one of the installations was Te Ao Marama (Te Urutahi Waikerepuru and Tim Barlow), made using sheets of bioplastic and harakeke fibre skin. During the discussion, Barlow noted how the material was a superior product to work with, and that New Zealand Crown Research Institute for forestry, Scion had begun making products combining kiwi fruit waste with PLA bioplastic, a development that addresses one of the common criticisms of both bio ware and biofuels: “that plant-based fuels and plastics use arable land that could be feeding the hungry of the world.”[11]

The use of kiwifruit pulp came about when Scion were asked by kiwifruit company Zespri to design a ‘biospife’, a spoon/knife eating utensil that can be composted along with the hollowed out skin. Polymer Scientist Martin Markotsis explains that the idea came up to use some of the waste product from juicing, but at this stage there is still more PLA bioplastic used than pulp.


Scion tested the biospife, as they do all their bio products, in their purpose built composting unit in Rotorua, where similar products can also be sent to be tested (for a fee). Markotsis observes that the unit is capable of testing to the European standards.”[12]


Markotsis notes that even when PLA products are compostable, there still needs to be a new stream created because PLA is currently classed as a 7, which is used to categorise all ‘other’ plastics and includes biodegradable, photo-sensitive, and plant-based plastics.[13]

How could bio ware be accommodated fully into our waste streams?

I believe that full accommodation could be achieved, but it would require legislation to have all possible plastic products replaced with their compostable alternatives, making collection of bio ware easier, and ensuring a viable on-shore market for both the production of the items and the cost of processing them into compost.

Without central government intervention however, any wholesale adoption would require the packaging, waste, and composting industries to voluntarily work together alongside local councils. Products would have to be Certified and labelled, and either be accommodated into existing organics/compost waste streams, or have a new waste stream invented. Any schemes would also need to be supported by a comprehensive and widespread education campaign.

Overall, the best way to ensure any system would work would be to aim for national cohesion, something that it is worth noting, has yet to be achieved with regards to recycling.

Future friendly disposal?

There is a glimmer of hope in the news that Blended Fuel Solutions New Zealand Limited is currently awaiting consent for a pilot plant that can turn any type of waste into fuel, using pyrolysis, an old technology that director Leigh Ramsey explains involves the “thermal degradation of matter in the absence of oxygen.” He notes that waste to energy is becoming popular internationally, but because of New Zealand’s “sparse population and geographical nature” it is difficult to achieve here. His solution is to manufacture smaller decentralised plants that can create fuel for local markets.[14]

The use of such technology would transform the waste industry; the difficulties of streaming and sorting could be bypassed with the return to a one or two-bin system (preferably with organic waste separated for composting).

Until a solution is found however, unless you are prepared to compost bio ware products at home or can be sure that they are going to an approved commercial composter, current best practice is to send these items to landfill, making their eco credentials a sham. Better, replace them with their recyclable counterparts.

Of course there is an alternative that is truly eco: to encourage businesses and consumers to revert to reusable products such as glass bottles and items sold in bulk. Because, in the decade since I first heard about potato plates, I’ve learned that disposable is never sustainable – no matter what it is made of. And if we are going to go to that much trouble to accommodate bio ware, why not return to a system that values reusable items such as those we used before we had a choice? That would be truly future friendly.


[1] In 2013 bioware is a collective term used to describe any ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ single use item including: potato starch, corn starch, timber products, bamboo, bioplastics and PLA (polylactic acid). However, to avoid confusion with the company trading as BioWare, I have elected to refer to these items as bio ware.

[2] Sandy Beath-Croft. Phone call to author. 9 December 2013.

[3] A number of papers have been written about the environmental advantages of these products, and the main article used here is a White Paper written by Chris Goodall for UK bioplastics company Biome (see below). Elizabeth Royte (author of Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash) has also written a balanced article here:

[4] Goodall, Chris. “Bioplastics: an important component of global sustainability.” Biome Bioplastics (Sept. 2011). Pg. 10.

[5] A recent example is the $60 000 NZD fine imposed on Eco Pal for making false environmental claims about their ‘100% Degradable’ courier bags.

[6] Kai to Compost. “What packaging can we put in our compost?: A reference guide for Kai to Compost and Capital Compost service users at the Southern Landfill.” November 2013. Pg. 1.

[7] In Christchurch, where my company Our Daily Waste provides recycling services at events, there is currently no composting options for large quantities, so vendors are asked to replace them with recyclable packaging to reduce the weight and cost of landfill disposal, along with the environmental cost. Some vendors continue to use these items however, convinced that they are still the best option, yet not wishing to take responsibility for disposal themselves.

[8] Gina Dempster. Email to author. 10 December 2013.

[9] These items are not differentiated in the most recent Ministry for the Environment waste statistics (2009) so are presumably included either in the Organics (28%), Plastics (8%) or Paper (7%) categories.

[10] Amanda Martin. Email to author. 23 December 2013. For more on Eco Express’ certification and product stewardship go to

[11] Tim Barlow. Email to author. 7 December 2013

[12] Martin Markotsis. Phone call to author. 7 January 2014

[14] Leigh Ramsey. Phone call to author. 24 December 2013


Earthquake Preparation – a random selection of things learned in Christchurch 2010-11.


The shoes in which I wore the soles out when walking home through liquefaction and broken streets on February 22, 2011.

I’ve heard that some Cantabrians are telling Wellingtonians to “toughen up”, but my heart goes out to all the people in central NZ affected by the latest spate of earthquakes – so much so I figured it was time to write down some things which may make the situation a little easier, should you need it, which I sincerely hope that you do not.

Being prepared can in no way fully insure you against earthquakes, and I’m very thankful that fate has been kind to me through all the Christchurch ones, and the worst that happened was that I lost power and water for a few days, a job that I loved, and too many friends to distant places. Hence, I feel a stab of survivor guilt every time I hear a new horror story of tragedy, extreme discomfort, or ongoing insurance woes. However, as everyone who’s been through it knows, the effects of a natural disaster are not just about the moment it hits, and that is something you can be prepared for.

Thanks to a niggling feeling that started at the beginning of 2010, I admit I was better prepared than most, and began justifying my wine intake by filling up the empties with water and storing them in boxes in the shed. Having formerly lived in a van, I also have a lot of camping gear, and at some point in mid 2010 rearranged the shed so that all the water and emergency equipment was both protected and easy to get to. Yet when September hit, I was still not as ready as I could’ve been, and with each successive major quake have learned something either from my own experiences or those of others. So in addition to the standard emergency advice, and investing in low, sturdy furniture, here are some suggestions that may help you feel that you have some control over how you get through it.

September, 2010:


  • Lying in bed prior to a quake and imagining the safest place to go should a big one hit is really useful at the moment that a big one hits because even if every other organ in your body is trying to turn itself inside out, your brain will go into automatic mode.
  • Rolling off the bed onto the wooden floor and then pulling futon over head will be much more comfortable if you also roll yourself in the duvet.
  • Those who sleep in the nud might like to consider the benefits of pyjamas.
  • Leaving all your daytime clothes, including your shoes, in a bundle beside your bed is not messy, but sensible.
  • Having a radio and torch (that actually work) beside your safe place would also be sensible.
  • If you have kids, put the youngest in the bedroom closest to yours.


  • Owning a landline that requires no electricity means that you have contact with the outside world – no phone-call in my life will mean as much as my best friend’s on that cold, pitch-black morning.
  • Even when there’s cell coverage, cell-phones only work if there is credit on the phone and it is fully charged (consider investing in an alternative charger such as car, solar, or wind-up).
  • Having cash on hand means you can get a phone credit (or anything else) from a dairy operating with no power or eftpos (cash is king when the lines are down).

February, 2011

Getting Home

  • When it’s stopped and you leave the building ignore all the advice you’ve ever had to leave your belongings, and if they’re in reach grab your bag and jacket. I was lucky to be let back in to get mine, but a lot of people were left without their essentials at the most vulnerable time of their lives. I now make a habit of keeping my bag close by at all times.
  • Pre-Googling a walking map to get you home should you be at work when a quake hits is a really great idea, but also consider a route that avoids bridges.
  • Walking is far quicker than driving, and from the look of all the panicked faces of people stuck in traffic that day, also less stressful. You can always go back when it’s calmed down to get your car.
  • Heels are not ideal. Wearing flat shoes and jeans to work that day was more luck than preparedness, but if you do wear heels consider keeping walking boots at work and in the car.
  • Consider keeping a back pack with water, scroggin, first aid, and comfy clothes and boots under your desk or in your vehicle.
  • If you have kids, do what the adverts say and have a plan. Schools will have rules about who they can go home with, but consider asking friends who live nearby if they can drop into the school with food and blankets and check that they’re okay.


  • If you can, make a kitchen and living area outdoors, and pick the safest room with good outside access as a family sleeping room.
  • Keep the freezer closed and wrap duvets around it to keep it cold for as long as possible.
  • Remove any breakable or heavy items from high shelves or at least string elastic up, and pack preserves tightly into crates and store on floors (it’s a really good idea to do this anyway).
  • Wooden rulers or sticks can be put through handles to stop cupboard doors from swinging open.
  • Stabilise book shelves by placing heaviest books at bottom and wedging everything in tightly.
  • Remove anything that could fall across and block doorways.
  • Solar showers are great for heating water for dishes.
  • Rain water collection can be used for washing etc.
  • Having enough water, gas and food to look after your neighbours will also ensure that the wine and chocolate gets delivered to you.


  • Don’t drive anywhere unless you have to – leave the roads free for the emergency and service vehicles.
  • If you have to evacuate or drive anywhere in the days after try to do it in daylight, and have a co-pilot to look out for hazards.
  • Bikes offer far more accessibility when half the roads in your neighbourhood are munted.
  • Don’t be a dick. If you live in an area that is not badly affected, don’t drive to somewhere that is. People trying to clean up get majorly peeved (and that is a euphemism) at rubber-neckers dawdling through their streets with their cameras. If you do, you will get abused, and risk having liquefaction – or worse – thrown at your car.


  • Get down with the Portaloo – it sure beats some of the alternatives.
  • If you have to dig a hole, consider a trench, as the anaerobic activity happens closer to the surface.
  • The chemicals that come with a chemical toilet are so vomit and headache-inducing that you may wish to consider composting alternatives.
  • A Bokashi kit makes a great emergency toilet, and once it has done its thing for a couple of months, you can bury it or feed it to your worms or compost.
  • An old dining chair with a removable seat makes the Bokashi bucket way more comfy.
  • Composting toilets are also far more pleasant to deal with in your back yard than carrying a heavy chemical toilet down the road to empty into a shoulder-height plastic bucket that says “beware of splashback” – otherwise known as the ‘walk of shame’.

June, 2011

  • If your work gets closed, and you live on the other side of town, going to the pub until the roads clear may not be such a good idea. Neither is sitting in a glass atrium, so that when a bigger quake hits an hour later you find yourself under a very small table with your workmates.
  • Having a gas heater makes a good alternative heating source when the power is down, and chimneys are MIA.
  • Have plenty of hot water bottles, the water to fill them, and the means to heat it.
  • Have tarpaulins and buckets on hand in case it rains or snows.

December, 2011

  • Even when you think you have gotten used to them, a good shake can still make your vital organs turn inside out.
  • If you must go to a mall, leave the car at home or park on the streets and not in a covered car park (fortunately, this is something I only witnessed via TV).
  • Earthquakes don’t care about Christmas, or any other human invention, and because of that you may find yourself swearing and shaking your fist at them simply because it makes you feel better. And that’s okay.