An environmental champion before it was fashionable, Warren Snow helped push New Zealand towards becoming the first nation to adopt Zero Waste as a goal. Trustee and founder of Zero Waste 2020, and founder of Envision, one of Snow's maxims is, "it's not waste until you've wasted it".
I'm 73 and I recently gave the world notice that I'm ready to retire. Although if anyone wants to pick up on the issue of Auckland's throwaway houses, or how The Warehouse can't be both sustainable and affordable, I'll talk about those things. But I'm at the stage where I don't want to produce reports or strategies or go around talking to groups. Instead, I want to be at home, making art and writing.
I was born in Tauranga in 1948 when the population was just 7000. We moved around a lot, different schools and towns, so I became very good at befriending people quickly. But I hated school, literally from the day I started to the day I escaped, and for ever after, escaping became a theme of my life.
When I was 10, my parents split up. My grandfather was a Baptist and his brothers were both missionaries, one in Africa and one in the deepest jungles of South America. Dad came from a long line of very sincere, devout people. Mum belonged to an unusual religious group started by Edward Cooney. The church had no name, but some people called us Cooney-ites. They were very much like Exclusive Brethren. You couldn't watch TV or listen to the radio, women had to have long hair, and they met in people's homes. As a kid, I had this stigma of belonging to a strange cult-like organisation.
The church caused a lot of friction for my parents. My dad ran a bus company and he wanted to take the youth on little trips, or to the beach, but that was frowned upon as being too worldly. Dad thought the elders were mean old men and decided to leave Mum and the church. One night there was a huge argument. A church member came around to intervene. Dad had him by the scruff of the neck and was about to punch his lights out, which was terrifying and exciting. We moved out that night and I never really saw Mum again till I was 18.
Dad was a very disengaged parent. My older sister called it "loving neglect", but he instilled in us a strong sense of belief that we could do anything. I carried on through the school system in Hamilton and Tauranga, hating every minute. Finally, in Taihape, I was kicked out of every class except English and art but I had one lovely teacher. Mr Watson saw that I was disruptive, not bad, and he said all I had to worry about was English and art and I'd do okay. That was so prescient, because all my life I've written and done art and I've done okay.
My first job was on a huge sheep station between Napier and Taihape. One night we're in the workers quarters. I was really tiny by the way. I never grew till I was about 18 when I had a little growth spurt and reached five foot six. These big farm guys are sitting around, and I'm this little pimple on the sidelines when one of them took offence at something I'd said and he threw me out the door. I took that as my cue to leave. The mail truck came the next morning, I got on it and that's how I resigned from my first job.
Because I was good at art, I landed a five-year sign-writing apprenticeship in Whanganui, but that felt too long, so I broke the apprenticeship and went back to Tauranga and started a signwriting business aged 19. By the time I was 24 I employed 14 staff. We pitched for huge jobs - partly made possible by the self-belief instilled in me by my father – and had clients like Lion Breweries and Rothmans.
I was an idealist - making money was not my purpose - then I started reading about the environment. I read The Closing Circle by Barry Commoner, one of the first wake-up call books and I realised I didn't want to work for companies that were destroying the world. One day, the Rothmans guy came in to give us another big contract. We all smoked and partied back then and he'd give us all cartons of cigarettes. But, on the spur of the moment, I told him we didn't want to work for them anymore. He asked why, and I said I don't believe in your products, nor do I approve of marketing them to young people.
I no longer wanted to advertise things that took society down the wrong path. Also, the waste involved was phenomenal and I wondered, what other clients I could drop. But I also had staff to think about, so, I got out and two weeks later I'd sold for a bargain price.
This is the 1970s, and using the money from the sale, we bought land in Northland and we lived off the land for about six years, my wife Karen and our two daughters. We learned so much up there. Like how nature rewards you the more you work with it, but then my marriage broke up. My wife left with the two girls and I sold my shares in the land, leaving just enough to buy a rundown house in Ahipara.
Thanks to Roger Douglas' reforms, by the late 80s, towns like Kaitaia went from almost no unemployment, to half the working population, or worse, on the dole. There were no opportunities beyond pointless training programmes. You'd see young kids going around town with plastic folders from all the courses they'd been on, but no chance of a job. About that time, I ran out of money and rented a little shop in Kaitaia and started doing signs again. I hired local people, then a friend and I decided to set up a community business and environment centre.
When the local council was told by the regional council that all the informal dumps were being closed in favour of landfills, we put together a proposal to run the site for little more than the landfill plan would cost, but we'd also employ people AND recycle. We wanted to absorb all resources including waste oil and compost. We researched how to turn plastic, glass, tin, paper and cardboard into commodities and make good revenue. There'd also be a little shop for selling things that were still useful. We'd create a connecting point that you don't get when you put an item on the side of the road where it might be rained on, or it takes a week for the right person to see it. That was very successful.
I later took a similar idea to Auckland. A colleague and I wrote a report called Reclaiming Auckland's Resources and we presented it to the Auckland mayoral forum, back when Auckland was made up of seven cities. They loved it, but it lost momentum, and it wasn't till the Super City was formed that we were offered a contract which resulted in about 10 community recycling centres and budget for four or five more. It's called the Resource Recovery Network (RRN) and every big company needs to be incentivised to take part because they create jobs and opportunities for people to recycle, or fix things to sell.
There's also "product stewardship". Think of bottle deposits. If you put a 20c refund on each container, people either take it back, or it's thrown on the road and someone else picks it up. Kids can be entrepreneurs. Everything about that works, and New Zealand will finally have a bottle deposit/refund system in place by 2023. That's been a big win for communities and the environment but it took 20 years of battling well-resourced industry lobbyists.
The "right to repair" movement is exploding right now. When I ran my sign company, if we made a sign for an appliance store, they always wanted "sales and service" on it. Because you wouldn't sell an appliance without after-sales service, but the big box retailers broke that mould by bringing in sales without service. Cheaper products, not as well made, and if the thing doesn't work, take it back for a money-back guarantee and it's thrown in the dump.
That's why I took the job as the first manager of The Tindall Foundation, because I thought I could instigate change from within, but The Warehouse continues to promote what they're doing as sustainable. But if it was truly sustainable, they'd offer repair services and they wouldn't sell products that end up in landfills. Our homes have become temporary stops on the way to landfill. But we are running out of landfill space and big retailers are getting a free lunch because councils have to pay the costs of disposal for these non-repairable products.
I started Envision, an environmental consultancy, to help local governments and engineers feel confident to step out of the old straitjacket of waste as a problem to solve, and see it as an opportunity to create work and make savings. Some engineers fought us tooth and nail, opposing recycling in favour of building bigger landfills, because they were focused on the technology of landfill.
When you fight bureaucrats and corporates, some of them portray themselves as tiny victims of our efforts to make them accountable. But we see waste as a social issue, not a technical issue. It's just a different mindset, all about how resources flow through the community, and for landfill not to be the final objective.
I've never felt overwhelmed, because with each decline of the situation you reach a new normal. No matter how far down things go, you can always turn it around – most of the time at least. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer many years ago and decided to do watchful waiting. I've kept it at bay for a long time, but it's caught up with me, and I'm now in palliative care.
For many years, I went hard out all the time. I neglected parts of my life that should've been more important, because the key thing is to live simply. To make time for your passions and work, but also for family and friends and reflection. I'm less absorbed with trying to change the world now, but I don't regret the life I've had.
I had my children very young, and they had their children young, so I have older grandchildren to enjoy, and I've never been more content. My wife and I have a little unit with a garage out the back for my studio. I've got everything I need, nothing more. I'll draw this afternoon. I'll write and reflect. Life is good. I've made my peace.