This is the second instalment of a Newshub Q&A series with influential Kiwis who are making their mark on the world.
Giving up a law career to launch a charity focused on protecting the environment during the middle of the Global Financial Crisis, Sam Judd was ready for some challenges.
With some help of some mates - a bunch of Kiwi surfers who volunteered huge hours for more than two years - Sustainable Coastlines was launched aiming to enable people to look after the places that they love.
Judd and his team do this by creating and providing innovative solutions, then teaching local people how they can apply them through capacity development.
New Zealanders are the 10th worst in the world when it comes to materials consumption per capita, what sort of work is Sam doing, what does it take to make a difference, and are we doomed if we don't act now?
What is Sustainable Coastlines main focus?
We are dedicated to having beautiful beaches, healthy waters and inspired people. To me, the people are the most important part of this equation, because whilst it is humans that have caused the depletion of our natural capital, it is also people that are going to replenish it. This is something that we help people to do through regenerative practice.
You came from a legal background to pursue creating cleaner solutions to better our country - what was the biggest challenge in making that transition and how were you able to keep moving forward?
The biggest challenges have been to balance work and personal life and stay motivated when you see how big the problems we tackle are. I think the way I was able to keep moving forward was by continuing to take on new, innovative challenges.
It really has been about pushing on and not giving up even when challenges seem immense – which they certainly are in this game. Perhaps the fact that we chose causes (marine debris and water quality) that practically everyone agrees with has helped too – we are a-political which has really enabled us to avoid the conflict that many lobbying organisations experience frequently.
Can you give us some stats around how much rubbish Sustainable Coastlines have picked up around New Zealand beaches?
We have removed 1,448,597 litres of rubbish from coastlines with over 90,000 volunteers. To picture this in terms of volume – Auckland’s Skytower (which is mainly made of concrete) has 1.5 million litres of concrete in it.
When it comes to waterways - we are the second heaviest users of freshwater in the OECD – with 5 trillion litres consented for irrigation, which has enabled dairy farms to upscale to the point that we have over 10 million cows roaming our fields and defecating into our waterways. But it is not just the farms - through badly planned and unrestrained development we also have a stack of urban waterways that are permanently closed to swimming – especially in Auckland.
The result of this is that we now have the worst rate of waterborne disease in the developed world – hardly something to be proud of and for me, definitely not the kind of place I want to leave for my daughter to grow up in when I am gone.
What would you pick as you and your team's biggest achievement to date?
We picked up the most prestigious youth award for sustainability on the planet for The Flagship Education Centre – the World Energy Globe Award for Youth. This building is aiming to become a fully certified Living Building – which would make it the most sustainable commercial building in New Zealand.
This project was delivered by partnering with 144 organisations and over 2,000 people. All the consultants worked pro bono and we had a strong collaboration with prison industries and community work teams from the Department of Corrections.
This showed that an epic goal can be reached when people work together.
Pūniu River Care is perhaps my favourite example of us being able to help develop local capacity. We helped them go from a concept to employing 20+ local young Maori staff and producing over half a million native trees annually in just three-and-a-half years of operation.
This showed that if people give up their egos and openly share knowledge with people who have passion, then a huge impact can be achieved.
What habits do you see in New Zealanders regularly that really triggers you?
For the general population, I would have to say short term thinking. So many people just think about next years’ balance sheet or how much money they can pass on to their kids.
Many think that looking after the environment is bad for business.
The reality is that unless we protect our natural capital, we are actually losing money over the medium to long term. For example, after three rotations of clear-felled pine trees on steep land, you will effectively lose the topsoil – which is incredibly important – and the land is permanently damaged.
If we consider the long term and the reliance that our tourism has on natural capital, then the short term gains that sacrifice environmental wellbeing are insane.
This is why I love working with Maori so much. Their world view where they often make decisions based on 200+ years ahead.
Our busy, materialistic, throw-away lives are another habit that is on the increase.
Sometimes people just need to chill out and think a bit deeper about what they are purchasing, how they are behaving and how they are operating their businesses.
What are some ways we can aim to make a difference individually?
We need to stop the pollution at its source and create ways to intercept what is escaping into the environment.
I truly think that the best thing we can do is to plant as many native trees as possible.
It involves permanent landscape improvement and actually regenerates the environment by literally eating and absorbing pollution. This is different from cleaning up a beach that will just get dirty again.
When it comes to plastic we should be focussing on reducing how much we consume by making better choices and refusing unnecessary packaging.
From there it comes to re-using that which we can. Recycling is next on the list, sitting just behind using a landfill, and then littering.
Recycling is not going to save the world – it is effectively an excuse to use more plastic that has been established by the plastics industry.
Raising awareness through media, but also taking a stand and speaking up directly to friends and family is key. Most people would not litter if they knew that it was poisoning our food chain. This is why we focus so heavily on telling people to talk about what we have told them in our education work. If all of the 200,000+ people we have presented to go on to talk to five people each the impact becomes exponential.
What in your opinion should New Zealand's biggest focus be on when it comes to our environmental responsibility?
I think we need to focus on the importance that the environment has for our social, economic and cultural wellbeing. Essentially when we act responsibly for the environment, we are looking after people.
If we could focus on investments that are designed to prove that regenerating the environment is good for people then it will be easier to fund restoration work moving forward and become a ‘no brainer’. There is only so much money in the pot for this work, so researching how restoration delivers returns would be a really good move.
Some of this is already proven. We know that if we incentivise and support people to make better land use decisions then we can reverse the environmental decline and improve profitability on farms simultaneously. New Zealand has extensive unproductive land that could – and should – be converted into permanent forest sinks.
Establishing reconstructed wetlands to me is really the ultimate solution. They significantly reduce nutrient pollution, soak up sediment, sequester carbon and create crucial habitat for our threatened native species which are in decline.
Taking into account the true cost of unnecessary single-use packaging would be another. All of us lose natural capital and future economic gains when fish eat plastic litter and tourists see rubbish in a supposed paradise.
Do you get frustrated by or agree with the idea that the planet is doomed?
Although I certainly lament some of the human behaviours that has gone on in the past, I do not think we are doomed at all.
In just one month of the ANZ Love Your Water Tour, we have activated a total of 1,727 people in local communities to plant 34,300 native trees/shrubs and educated 1,177 people with presentations. We are gearing towards scaling this up through developing the capacity of local hapu/iwi and community groups to continue to tackle these challenges with the benefit of learning from our experience.
Last week we helped local charity the Ngāti Hauā Mahi Trust to plant 13,000 trees in just three days on freshly retired dairy farm land.
We are also out nationwide with our ‘Litter Intelligence’ programme, which enables citizen scientists to prove what is going on with litter in local communities and we have had an awesome response. This then makes it possible to prove the effectiveness of interventions such as education, infrastructure, awareness campaigns, policy or even product design.
So there is light at the end of the tunnel. I think kiwis are an innately innovative bunch of people and when we put our heads and hands together we can create solutions that can actually lead the world. We also have the benefits of a small population, developed society and extensive natural beauty to protect. In effect, this is a great place to come up with and trial out solutions that can then be scaled up internationally.
Both marine plastics, climate change and water quality are global problems, but the only way to take these on is to create local solutions. If we can enhance these with innovative tools, experience and training in regenerative practice, then kiwis can lead the way.
If people want to step up and be part of the solution – check out www.sustainablecoastlines.org. There you can get involved in their events, become an ambassador, pitch a project to work on or support the efforts to make New Zealand a better place.