cycle trail litter“We used to pick up litter ourselves until they took away most of the bins”, says the woman as she walks past with her partner, out for their morning exercise.   I’d like to respond in a way that encourages her to restart, to tell her all the reasons why during my morning walk I collect what others discard. I want to suggest that the current location of bins could still work for them but my words don’t come out right: I mumble something about hoping they enjoy their walk, and my chance to speak up is lost.

Dear Reader, in hindsight I realise what I want to tell this couple. Why, even in the face of the enormity of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ and my awareness that globally we allow discards that would fill a rubbish truck to enter the  oceans every minute,  I still believe in the value of picking up litter!  Despite the enormity of this issue that tears at my soul demanding I feel powerless and defeated, amplified by a regular chorus of “If other people aren’t doing anything, why should I?”, I still regularly pick up other people’s discards.  I missed sharing these ten ideas with that walking couple so would you be willing to listen instead?

  • First, do you know the Starfish story? ‘Along a beach strewn with starfish as far as the eye could see that had washed up on the sand walked an old priest and a young boy. Every so often as they walked, the elderly man would bend down, pick up a starfish and toss it back into the sea. “Why are you bothering? Asked the young boy, “Cant you see its hopeless, there are far too many. You’ll never make a difference.” The old priest replies, “Well, young man, I made a difference to that one.” ‘ I often think of that traditional story as I pick up a piece of plastic wrapping.  I picture one fish, one seabird or the dolphin that won’t now get sick from consuming this particular plastic bottle top or lolly wrapper.
  • ‘People find a natural joy in contributing to the world’s wellbeing’, says one of the people who most influences my thinking, Marshall Rosenberg, founder of NVC ( I certainly feel it – perhaps it has a physiological basis in seratonin or endorphins or something – I just know that when I am feeling stressed, weary, cross and out of sorts, I have only to push myself to get up and out for a walk, taking a re-used bread bag and picking up litter, to return home 40 minutes later refreshed, regenerated and in good spirits!
  • I know am not alone. By picking up things discarded into our environment, I join a growing community around the world.  With this belonging comes a badge of hope.  When I think of the small group in Mumbai (, the NZ charity Sustainable Coastlines started by a Kiwi surfer, or the young Australians who set up the ‘Take 3 for the Sea’ ( challenge, I feel humbled to be amongst these eco-active giants, my brothers and sisters in this shared kaupapa, and doing my small ‘bit’ seems easy.
  • Personally I just don’t feel comfortable when I see rubbish lying around. Perhaps its my inbuilt sense of order or maybe what I learnt to do as a child,  but picking up litter and not leaving it around makes me feel easier.
  • Whether I understand it literally or not, the vision of birds, plants and we humans all descended from Tane, fish from Tangaroa, and insects from Whiro who in turn are all descended from Papatuanuku, is a powerful one. We are all connected within the great circle of life.  The health and security of one is the health and security of us all.
  • Something lying on the surface of a beautiful patchwork would stop me enjoying its full beauty. Why wouldn’t I pick something off the ground so I can enjoy the full natural harmony of a vista of plants or a stream or the beach?
  • By carrying items to the nearest bin, or home for recycling, I’m energised to ask our representatives for change. Today I email Matt King our local MP to request his support for refundable bottles and cans. Next week I’ll contact David Parker, our Environment Minister on the same issue or a member of our community board about local recycling bins. If things are to change, our representatives need to be aware of what we the people of NZ care about.
  • I have two marvellous small grandsons. I want to look after their world as best I can.  My hands can help just a little. My experience is that littles add up. Its their future.
  • I gain a powerful sense of mana myself in looking after the environment. I gain self respect as well as respect from those whose opinions I value.
  • Its fun! If you don’t believe me, try watching Kiri Danielle, the young Kiwi who without criticism or comment, races across her skateboarding area before she starts; in just a few minutes making a world of difference (

Picking up litter is just a tiny piece of a ‘tukutuku panel’ of strands each of us needs to consider weaving if we are truly to make a difference.  Is it the whole answer? No, absolutely not. It is the ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ and we need to put much of our energy into rethinking our choices on what we do and what we eat, re-organising our workplaces, and requesting  change from packaging stakeholders and decision makers.  So is picking up litter a meaningful thing to do? Well, as you see above, I believe the answer is a tenfold ‘Yes’!

If you would like to comment (or join me on an empowering walk!) I’m always keen to listen. You can connect with me at or join the Far North Zero Waste Facebook Group.   #togetherwecandoit



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