Meet the Plasticarians
More people in Raglan are going one step further than plastic bags.
Merren Tait is a Raglan librarian. Single, quietly spoken and fond of all manner of books, she’s a person you might imagine going home at night to make herbal tea in a china pot and curl up with Jane Austen. Except you would be wrong.
Tait is a spirited eco- warrior. At weekends, she checks traps for rats, weasels and stoats; on her daily run or cycle, she stops to pick up rubbish; at night, she writes to producers of plastic products, asking them to consider sustainable alternatives. “One firm thanked me for my letter and sent me three plastic gift cards.”
It began, like many revolutions, with an epiphany.
Tait, 39, arrived in Raglan more than seven years ago. She liked the town but couldn’t find a job, so she commuted daily 40km across the Kapamahunga Range to teach in Hamilton. When a position at Raglan’s public library came up, she applied and got the job.
The library is housed in the municipal centre – the hub of local body politics. Tait became familiar with issues that were top of mind for locals. At the same time, she watched a trailer for Midway: A Message from the Gyre (https://vimeo. com/25563376), a documentary about a remote Pacific Island littered with plastic rubbish and the carcasses of thousands of albatrosses that have eaten it. She wells up even talking about it.
Overnight, she went from armchair environmentalist – “happy to donate money, sign petitions” – to plastic-free crusader. When Raglan celebrated Plastic- Free July – a worldwide campaign encouraging people to refuse to use single-use plastic for a month – she went further, announcing she would live without any plastic at all for a year. It was a publicity stunt, she says, to raise attention and awareness.
She began by purging her home of all single-use plastic products. Pantry items were re-housed in glass jars, tins or cardboard boxes. Bathroom items were replaced with bulk products decanted into reusable containers. She bought toilet paper in compostable bamboo wrapping, bamboo toothbrushes and shampoo bars from Lush. She made her own toothpaste and deodorant, and tried flax for dental floss (“didn’t work”). If she couldn’t find a non-plastic option, she bought secondhand products; she even dug out her grandfather’s razor that he took to the war.
Other ethical concerns occasionally overrode the use of plastic. “I buy butter in plastic, but only from farms where bobby calves are rehomed.” Sometimes, she’d leave plastic wrapping at the shop to raise awareness, and she asked for takeaway food in a paper napkin rather than a Styrofoam container. She wrote letters to manufacturers. Other shoppers got to know her. “In a supermarket queue, people standing next to me would refuse a plastic bag.”
Her entire plastic waste for a year – made up of blister packs for prescription medication and pet-food containers for a cat with allergies – filled one small, non-plastic shopping bag.
A year on, her habits have barely changed. Taking a road less consumptive, she says, becomes easier as time passes – and people need only reference their parents’ practices for guidance. “Sandwiches were wrapped in greaseproof paper, not cling wrap; food was covered with muslin cloths and stored in reusable tins, jars and bottles. If you want to know how to do it, just go ask your mother or your nana.”
Raglan is a magnet for surfers. On a warm autumn day, with a slight offshore breeze, they line up beyond the breakers at Manu Bay, waiting for the fat-bellied swell that could give them the best ride of their life. Which is probably why, on the day before her scheduled interview, Elena Pulido Hidalgo texts to ask if she could postpone until the afternoon.
“Surf conditions are just epic for Monday morning and I’ve been almost a