As councillors return to work, after their post-election hiatus, even the most climate conscious are likely to pick up the emergency declaration debate again sipping from plastic.
The irony was not lost on Marlborough councillor Michael Fitzpatrick back in July, who pointed out during a climate change discussion that plastic cups were still being used in the council’s chambers.
Figures obtained under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA) show Marlborough is far from alone, with about half of New Zealand’s 78 councils also splashing out on single-use plastic cups.
Councils bought close to 120,000 plastic cups last financial year, and while some of those were ‘recyclable’ plastic, there was no guarantee as to where they ended up. But change could be on the way, with many councils already eyeing up eco-friendly alternatives.
Mr Fitzpatrick said the Marlborough District Council made the switch to biodegradable paper cups after the media got wind of their plastic purchases.
Last year, the council bought 3000 plastic recyclable cups for “customer use” at its Seymour St reception and Blenheim Library, and 4000 for “everywhere but reception and the library”.
“You look at these things everyday, but don’t realise what you’re looking at sometimes,” Mr Fitzpatrick said.
He said while environmental movements generally started “at the top”, councils were just one part of the puzzle.
“Everyone’s got to participate in the movement … everyone’s got to show initiative,” he said.
Climate campaigner Budyong Hill praised councils for scrapping plastic cups, but reminded councillors there was still work to be done.
“It’s good to start with the small things, but there’s no point patting ourselves on the back for getting rid of plastic cups, when there are far bigger things that we have to address and keep in mind,” he said.
Prompted by the Local Democracy Reporter request, two councils even promised to rethink their purchases going forward.
Ōpōtiki District Council chief executive Aileen Lawrie said the council would look at replacing its plastic cups, which were used as back-ups for meetings.
A South Waikato District Council spokeswoman said: “While this was not specifically on our radar to review, your question has prompted us to investigate suitable alternatives for our library users …”
A Gore District Council spokeswoman, however, said the council had “no current plans” to stop chewing through about 6000 plastic cups each year.
Whangārei District Council did not state if it would stop using plastic cups, after buying 980 last year. It had also bought 2000 polylactide cups, which were both compostable and recyclable.
LGOIMA responses showed most councils that bought plastic cups last year were looking at alternatives or had already made the switch.
Kaikōura District Council had less than 100 plastic cups left, favouring compostable potato-based cups for customers, while staff used their own reusable glasses.
All staff at Waitaki District Council were given a reusable cup after the council noticed staffers were ploughing through a “significant number” of non-recyclable takeaway cups.
Bay of Plenty Regional Council said it was thinking about installing water fountains as part of its Regional House refurbishment, and Timaru District Council said it planned to put water fountains outside its three libraries.
Timaru was the worst plastic cup offender, buying 14,600 cups last year, followed closely by South Waikato, which bought 14,000.
Six councils said they had bought plastic cups for events, including Timaru, which was not allowed glass cups at its ‘community pool party’.
A South Waikato District Council spokesman said it bought the cups for its libraries, partly because it felt glass cups weren’t safe for children.
Hastings District Council bought about 8000 plastic cups last year so visitors could slurp “smoothies, slushes [sic] and iced coffees” at its water park, Splash Planet.
Tairāwhiti Environment Centre manager Rena Kohere, who lived in Gisborne, which did not use plastic cups, said councils were community leaders with the power to create environmental change.
“In small towns like [Gisborne], if the council’s moving away from single-use plastic, then it provides a sense of leadership for other employers in the region, who will then follow suit,” Ms Kohere said.
“Often people are aware of the issues, but don’t know how to implement change, unless someone is pushing those boundaries.”
Ōtorohanga District Council executive assistant Day Dowd said even single-use paper cups were being weeded out. The council ordered two boxes of paper cups several years ago, and were “thrilled” to be down to the last 20 cups.
The council wanted staff and visitors to bring their own reusable water bottles, rather than relying on single-use cups.
Masterton District Council chief executive assistant Danielle Armstrong said the council had stopped using plastic years ago due to their “single-use nature and unnecessary waste creation”.
It had even returned five old boxes, or 1000 plastic cups, to its supplier for credit to use on other office supplies.
Taupō District Council environmental ranger Shannon Hanson spearheaded the council’s move from plastic to paper at the council’s water cooler stations in June last year.
Ms Hanson said in an article sent to Taupō’s council staff ahead of Plastic Free July that coming up with alternatives to single-use plastics, like cups and takeaway containers, was easier than councils might think.
“Water coolers might be cool, but plastic cups aren’t,” said the article. “[The council] will soon be saying adios to those pesky stacks of plastic cups on our water coolers.”
WasteMINZ chief executive Janine Brinsdon said she was glad to hear that about half of New Zealand councils had switched to eco-friendly alternatives.
“These small changes are symbolic but important. The world has finite resources and there are alternative packaging options available, such as reusables and other containments which [are] not single-use.”
Plastic cups at councils (purchased last financial year):
Ashburton District Council: 1000 cups, $217
Auckland Council: Unknown amount, unknown cost, but purchased cups
Bay of Plenty Regional Council: 500 cups, $30-$50
Buller District Council: None
Carterton District Council: None
Central Hawke’s Bay District Council: None
Central Otago District Council: 2000 cups, $189
Christchurch City Council: 3950 cups, $269
Clutha District Council: None
Dunedin City Council: 4700 cups, $435
Environment Canterbury: None
Environment Southland: None
Far North District Council: None
Gisborne District Council: None
Gore District Council: 6000 cups, $212
Greater Wellington Regional Council: None
Grey District Council: 20 cups, $2
Hamilton City Council: Did not reply
Hastings District Council: 8000 cups, $2810
Hauraki District Council: None
Hawke’s Bay Regional Council: None
Horizons Regional Council: None
Horowhenua District Council: 2000 cups, $181
Hurunui District Council: 100 cups, $96
Hutt City Council: 6200 cups, $283
Invercargill City Council: 9000 cups, $738
Kaikōura District Council: Less than 100 cups, unknown amount
Kaipara District Council: None
Kāpiti Coast District Council: 3000 cups, $117
Kawerau District Council: Did not reply
Mackenzie District Council: None
Manawatu District Council: Unknown amount, unknown cost, but purchased cups
Marlborough District Council: 7000 cups, $300
Masterton District Council: None
Matamata-Piako District Council: None
Napier City Council: 2000 cups, $158
Nelson City Council: None
New Plymouth District Council: None
Northland Regional Council: None
Ōpōtiki District Council: 80 cups, $30
Otago Regional Council: 1000 cups, $45
Ōtorohanga District Council: None
Palmerston North City Council: Unknown amount, unknown cost, but purchased cups
Porirua City Council: 8400 cups, $2640
Queenstown Lakes District Council: 300 cups, $13
Rangitīkei District Council: 290 cups, $50
Rotorua Lakes Council: None
Ruapehu District Council: None
Selwyn District Council: None
Southland District Council: 100 cups, $69
South Taranaki District Council: None
South Waikato District Council: 14,000 cups, unknown costs
South Wairarapa District Council: None
Stratford District Council: Asked for fee
Taranaki Regional Council: 3000 cups, $237
Tararua District Council: None
Tasman District Council: None
Taupō District Council: None
Tauranga City Council: None
Thames-Coromandel District Council: None
Timaru District Council: 14,600 cups, $1361
Upper Hutt City Council: 10,000 cups, $390
Waikato District Council: None
Waikato Regional Council: None
Waimakariri District Council: Did not reply
Waimate District Council: Unknown amount, less than $100
Waipa District Council: 250 cups, $23
Wairoa District Council: Did not reply
Waitaki District Council: 6000 cups, $900
Waitomo District Council: None
Wellington City Council: None
West Coast Regional Council: None
Western Bay of Plenty District Council: 1500 cups, unknown cost
Westland District Council: None
Whakatāne District Council: None
Whanganui District Council: None
Whangarei District Council: 980 cups, unknown amount
Chatham Islands Council: None
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the Newspaper Publishers’ Association and NZ On Air.