Niamh Peren on taking pragmatism to Parliament

Filmmaker and photographer Niamh Peren is 29 years old. Her tūrangawaewae is the south-west of the South Island, and she grew up around open spaces and lots of sheep. Her favourite bird is the almost mythical New Zealand pigeon, the kererū. When I spoke to her, she was about to drive down to see her grandmother in the Bay of Plenty after completing a series of interviews in Auckland. She isn’t running for office and doesn’t particularly want to be famous. She’s hell-bent on getting her good idea to be made great, and is dead set on getting it off the ground.

I’m just really a dorky person that had an idea.”

Three weeks ago, Niamh started a petition, and followed that shortly after with a ‘petition request’ to Parliament, along with an Instagram account called Thumbs Up New Zealand! And, a ‘people’s movement’ started to gather momentum. It’s her dream that New Zealand should dare to be the first country in the world to communicate to consumers in a direct way the recyclability of food and beverage packaging. Two green ‘thumbs up’ would indicate that packaging was 100% recyclable in NZ and made from 100% recycled material; one horizontal yellow thumb, 100% recyclable in NZ and not made from recycled material; two red ‘thumbs down’, would mean not recyclable in NZ. Simple, really. The problem is, it’s not currently simple at all. In fact, it’s confusing, even for the more conscientious consumer.

Today, in 2018, manufacturers still aren’t required by law to display whether their packaging is recyclable, or not. Add to that a series of opaque rules around what can and can’t be recycled – rules that, furthermore, can change depending on where you are in the country. All this makes it incredibly difficult both for the consumer, as well as the recycling companies. We’ve never been so busy, and in a time when it can be hard to remember to have lunch at all, remembering if your deli salad box is recyclable (and working out which coloured bin it goes into at work) is several steps too far for most people.

Peren reflects on the particularly New Zealand brand of can-do, or pragmatism that got her here. ‘I guess I’m pretty pragmatic and I like to find solutions, and I also like to do a bit of research. Everyone knows there’s a waste crisis, because we have tonnes and tonnes of waste that has nowhere to go. We’re obviously just adding to it daily, as we’re all living our lives. I went to the shops as part of my weekly food shop, and I asked myself, “How am I supposed to know what can go in the recycling bin and what can’t?” It just shouldn’t be that hard.’

The current system that informs us of packaging recyclability is called the Resin Identification Code and is that vague and largely, unrecognisable triangle-arrow symbol on the back of some packaging. It has seven different numbers, each denoting the type of material used. Says Niamh, ‘Some councils can recycle 1 and 2, others can’t. And I only know this now because I’ve done the research. It seems like you need to be a guru, at the moment, to know how to recycle.’

For the idea to work, says Niamh, ‘councils would have to sit down together and come up with one single green strategy. From the research I’ve done, I think that would be relatively easy. Basically, figuring out through elimination who can take what and where it can go.’ By doing this we would create and promote our own circular economy, showing leadership for a more sustainable future. The Ministry for Primary Industries would also be called upon to regulate the labels, as they already monitor other food and drink labelling requirements.

We New Zealanders may be time-poor and increasingly ‘mentally unavailable’, and our lawmakers and manufacturers are not making it easy to recycle; and yet we have never had such a strong intent to make a difference. In the 2018 Colmar Brunton ‘Better Futures’ report, ‘a build-up of plastic in the environment’ came in at number five of New Zealanders’ top ten concerns. Seventy-two per cent (up by 8.3 per cent on the previous year) of New Zealanders also rated that ‘responsible consumption and production’ was an important United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to sign up to.

Niamh’s solution – to almost ‘democratise’ this information by using her simple iconographic system – is a way to tap into this good intent at the point of purchase. Over recent years we’ve taken a look at what we’re putting in our food and drink and what we’re using to carry it home, but this level of engagement is only just beginning to show up on the packaging itself. The moment you decide to put something in your trolley is the moment that needs disrupting. Niamh’s tool easily puts the power in consumers’ hands, enabling us all to make an informed choice.

Peren says that while there’s no minimum number of signatures required to get the petition to Parliament, more signatures will mean that more MPs take it seriously. However it is received, she sees this as just the beginning. ‘Even if we don’t get enough signatures, I still think this is a good idea and would love companies just to adopt it and give it a go.’ Given the indications of corporate good intent in the recent plastic packaging declaration, perhaps more companies will put their money where their mouths are.

Though it’s early days yet, the reasons why this idea has resonated with everyday New Zealanders has been the highlight for Niamh. A strong theme that comes through in the comments are around protecting New Zealand for tomorrow and our future generations. A lot also think education and information is they key to unlock meaningful behaviour change. “Awareness is the first step to change!”, said one. “Education is very important”, said another. Niamh said mostly signatories have been strangers and that’s made the response even more awe-inspiring. “It’s really quite special, because I shared an idea. I’m really glad that people took the time to read it, because I feel really strongly about it”, she says.

At times, the challenges we face as a nation can feel large, immovable, overly complex and too theoretical. But, with a bit of research, creativity and a decent dose of practicality, we can achieve great things. Says Niamh, “It’s so important that we look after our communities, environment, and wildlife for future generations. We’re lucky that a single green strategy is achievable in New Zealand. So, let’s just make it happen.” If you haven’t signed already and want to join the New Zealanders who have, head to the ‘petition request’ page. At the time of publishing, it has eleven days until it’s presented to our MP’s on the steps of Parliament.