New Zealand households throw away $872 million worth of entirely edible food every year. That’s enough to stock every Countdown supermarket across New Zealand for a month and a half. Bread tops the waste chart with an eye-watering 20 million loaves discarded annually.
Lesley Ottey of Eco Educate, a trained horticultural tutor with a background in working with challenging young people, lives and breathes waste solutions. She believes the best educators we have are children and runs waste education programmes in 130 schools across Canterbury.
WHERE DO CUCUMBERS COME FROM?
“When a pre-school teacher once asked me if cucumbers grow underground, I realised there was a big gap in the education market.” Lesley says. “That’s where it all started.”
Eco Educate won the ECan Environmental Step Change Award in 2018 and was runner up in the 2018 North Canterbury News People’s Choice Award. This lady has some serious clout with the next generation.
“There’s part of me that feels guilty about being part of the disposable razor society. Buy it and throw it away. I can’t change what’s been but I can inspire change for the future.
“People say to me: ‘It’s too hard, it’s too big.’ I tell them that it’s not that long ago women didn’t have the vote in New Zealand. It’s not that long ago we had slavery. I can remember when they didn’t have seat belts in cars. These things have all changed.
SCHOOL CHILDREN LEADING THE CHARGE
“Greta Thunberg decided not to go to school in protest because what was the point of getting an education if there was no future. She told the politicians to stop behaving like irresponsible children and she’s inspired all these kids to walk out of school and hold up placards. That’s the sort of people I get to work with. How incredible!”
Passionate about gardening and growing food, she brought six trailer loads of plants with her when she moved to her 702m² section in Rangiora.
“My garden is my sanctuary. It’s where I go to recharge. It’s my happy place.”
She tells me about the workshop she is running at the moment with school children creating seed swap boxes. They decorate old school desks, pack up and label seed she has collected from her own garden, and put them into public libraries.
“People will be able to bring seeds in and take seeds home. No money, just swaps.
"Today we had 12 kids around the table taking the beans out of pods, having a discussion about how these turn into baked beans.
“Envelopes being made, labels being made, bean counters and stackers. We got 150 packets done. Those kids got a load of learning and got to reuse things as well."
CELEBRATING THOSE WHO DON'T FIT IN
Lesley hated school and was relentlessly bullied so it’s ironic that she now finds herself spending so much time in classrooms. She is particularly drawn to the kids who don’t fit the classroom square.
“I love them because they’re not interested in doing what we’ve always done. They constantly question: ‘Why does it have to be that shape? Why do we have to do it like that?’ and they’re right.
“I might be talking to the next Conservation Minister, Prime Minister, designer, problem solver or entrepreneur who’s going to go out there and solve some of the challenges we’ve got. I consider it an absolute privilege to work with the future.”
Lesley works with the Kaiapoi Food Forest and community gardens to bring more than just food to the people.
“I love the Food Forest because it’s about connecting people. I love community gardens because they’re bigger than just silverbeet and cabbage. It’s about soul and spirit. Making people smile. Connecting the dots.”
The barrage of information about waste and the environment can be so overwhelming these days. What advice does Lesley have for those of us with busy lives, just trying to do the right thing?
“Start with the low-hanging fruit. Don’t beat yourself up about having a takeaway coffee today. There are 365 days in the year, this was just one.
“Think about your purchasing choices. Do you really need this? Can you buy second hand? Second hand shops are overflowing. What will happen to this at the end of its life?
“Check the air in your tyres so you use less fuel. Plant a tree. It’s the little things.
“Take the time to teach somebody to sew or knit. Swap a skill with them. Older people say, ‘Oh, young people won’t be interested in how to make jam.’ Do they eat scones and jam when they come to your house? Do you know how to use your smart phone? They’d love to show you. Trade those skills.
“We all create waste, we just have to come up with creative solutions instead of sending it to landfill. We’ve got to stop looking at it as rubbish and start looking at it as a resource.
“That’s why my logo is an apple core because it’s not rubbish. It’s a good starting conversation with children. What can you do with an apple core? It could be a tree again, it could be chicken food, worm food, horse food, pig food, compost or bokashi. There’s seven options for you. Or we could pay cash to put it in the bin. It’s kind of a no-brainer. That’s Eco Educate in a nutshell.”