What comes to mind when you think of Auckland’s annual Chinese Lantern Festival? Beautiful lanterns to gaze at, delicious food to munch on, and cultural celebrations to revel in? Well, yes – but that’s only half of the story. While we may be having a good time, the environment is being irreversibly damaged by our toxic single-use plastic habit. Anyone who has seen Albert Park at the festival’s end changes their opinion from one of festivity, to disgust at the mess left. There is an undeniable dark side to this event.
When Chris, an environmental worker from Auckland Council approached Plastic Diet, a youth-lead organisation with the idea of making the festival waste-free, they jumped at the opportunity. Established in 2013 and run mainly by University students, Plastic Diet is dedicated to preventing the use of throw-away plastic and its pollution.
Previous to the event, food vendors had all been told by Auckland Council to purchase compostable plates and packaging, as well as to sort and dispose of their own waste at the end of the night. Over the three nights, Plastic Diet volunteers, including myself, attended 17 ‘Waste Stations’ around the park, where from 4.30 – 11.30pm we guided people on which bin their waste belonged in; Compost, Recycling, or Landfill, and why.
Including planning sessions, 60 volunteers gave over 330 hours of their time. Despite all our hard work, this was a much bigger job than any of us expected. As volunteer Betsy put it,
“This is moving so fast – you just can’t get to everybody.”
Thankfully, the reactions of people we managed to talk to were overwhelmingly positive. There was genuine interest in what we were saying, and a willingness to learn that made the night very rewarding. I was thanked and encouraged more times than I can remember. When caring for the environment is as simple as placing waste into a different coloured bin, people want in.
Unfortunately, the nature of most packaging means it is not made easy for people. We had to separate landfill-bound straws from recyclable cups, recyclable forks from compostable plates, and cling film from the drinking coconuts they encased. It was time-consuming and annoying – not the best way to get people enthusiastic about composting. Plastic Diet founder Flo says that,
“As well as stronger regulation of traders, all packaging should be made and labelled biodegradable, recyclable, or reusable to both reduce waste and avoid confusion.”
Some vendors ignored the council’s instructions and purchased styrofoam packaging – (the worst kind of plastic available). After the festival was over, Plastic Diet members saw first-hand the indiscriminate dumping of waste by vendors. Clearly, the Council’s policies are going un-enforced, and stricter penalties are needed.
Although Plastic Diet’s and the Council’s efforts had a significant impact on the amount of landfill waste produced at the Lantern Festival, an even greater effect can be achieved with further collaboration. Not-for-profit groups, the government, and businesses must work together to make single-use plastic a thing of the past.