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  • Mauatua Fa’ara-Reynold

Making Waves on Norfolk Island

Words by Mauatua Fa’ara-Reynolds (she/they)

So the world’s on fucking fire, and we’re all gonna drown. We’ve just had the hottest March on record. The ice caps are still melting. And there’s a monstrous patch of garbage in the Pacific that takes up a disgusting 1.6 million square kilometres of space. We’re in a constant state of climate-related panic attacks. But there is a little island in the South Pacific doing amazing things that might ease our anxieties.

Norfolk Island’s recycling centre has been a glimmer of hope amidst rising concerns about sustainable waste disposal methods. Norf’k salan (Norfolk Islanders) have shown incredible initiative in establishing invaluable transnational relationships to create durable solutions for their people, and getting the community more involved in shaping their future.

After much deliberation, it was decided that Norfolk Island’s recycling centre would be named ‘The Norfolk Wave’—a name that holds a double meaning. On the one hand it references the lovely Norf’k practice of waving at every passing car. It might just be a lifted index finger or, if you’re lucky, a whole raised hand out the window—in fact, you’re weird if you don’t wave. It symbolises a commitment to and acknowledgment of all the vital micro-connections that exist on the Island, and how they create a tight-knit and thoroughly engaged community. On the other hand, the metaphorical wave represents an aspiration to participate in the broader movement of environmental change, setting an example for other Pacific nations.

Prior to the Norfolk Wave’s establishment, Norfolk Island’s waste management was that of a regular landfill that we’d see here in Aotearoa or Australia. However, these sites are entirely unsuitable for smaller rural or Island communities who don’t have the same access to resource management services, adequate infrastructure to accommodate such operations, sufficient space, or people with the appropriate skills and training. Because the landfill proved insufficient, we resorted to open-air incineration, ocean-dumping, and exporting waste to Australian landfills. 

Growing up on Norfolk, it was normal for us to burn any of our rubbish at home, or for your uncle to get rid of his old cars and fridges by sending them off the Headstone cliff, into the ocean. When I asked my Mum about it, she said, “Everyone’s garbage used to go out to Headstone, be burnt, then chucked over the cliff. It’s just how we used to do it because we didn’t have enough space to store all our stuff.”

To this day we still export our waste to Australia, at the shocking price of $3 per kilo—accumulating to just under $2 million (AUD) each year. This puts a massive financial strain on the council rates, of only 2000 Norf’k salan. 

In an interview with The Norfolk Wave’s founder and local filmmaker (Islander translation: a recorded phone call with my Aunty), Natalie Grube said before the whole campaign was even an idea, it all started with a film project she was working on for incoming tourists so they could more appropriately engage with the community. “The way [visitors] talked about Island people or skin colour, all the way down to how they viewed rubbish—everything kind of came from this colonised mindset”, said Natalie. Previously, most information provided to tourists about environmental precautions focused on prohibited items or pests and diseases in customs. This was evidently a one-dimensional way of approaching environmental issues, so Natalie decided that the video had to be more comprehensive, and recognise the uniqueness of Norfolk’s nature and culture. But she was already on a roll. “I decided, if we were gonna make this film, we might as well make a campaign. Let’s make this as big as we can”. 

The Norfolk Wave’s story really begins when Natalie was living in the Northern Rivers of Australia. “One day, I was just searching about stuff online, and I heard about this company that had taken the Byron Bay Beach Hotel from a recycling rate as low as 5% to 90% overnight through their resource recovery”. This was Revolve Your World, a waste collection company that creates circular recycling solutions tailored to the specific community they’re working with. The circular economy model they implement is achieved by receiving waste and then repurposing it into various products that the community can use. 

Natalie reached out to them, and they were super keen to get involved, but none of this could work if the community wasn’t on board. So, Natalie sought to make the project culturally relevant to the community. She said, “I was thinking about how to get Norf’k people to reduce their waste and be more conscious. And it was really about considering how their ancestors would’ve lived, and that’s why we came up with our motto: miekduu (resourcefulness), mainaut (mindfulness), and miekhies (hastiness)”. In our chat, she also pointed out that the linear economy we live in (where we buy something, use it, then chuck it) is an introduced model of living and that the circular model Revolve Your World implements would be a return to ancestral ways of being. Natalie said her idea was, “Let’s go back to something we know works instead of assuming our rubbish is gonna find somewhere else to go”. As an especially remote community, we’ve had to learn to thrive in isolation. It’s in our blood and goes back to our ancestral beginnings on Pitcairn Island (if you don’t know our history, do a lil Wiki deep dive). And so, with a model that replicated that of our ancestors, supported by cultural concepts, Natalie had cracked the code. 

At the beginning of 2022, Revolve Your World began to design a comprehensive resource management solution for Norf’k. And in August 2023, The Norfolk Wave Recycling Centre was up and running. Within only two months of operating, The Norfolk Wave was already producing phenomenal improvements for the Island’s environment and community. Of the 231 tonnes of waste it processed during this period, a staggering 101 tonnes were recycled on the Island, 75 tonnes were recycled in Australia, and a mere 56 tonnes were sent to landfill. That’s a remarkable 75% of waste material being recycled. For comparison, Aotearoa only recycles about 28%.

But how does the Recycling Centre actually work? Well, here’s a long-winded explanation for you nerdy little Environment and Sustainability cuties. The recycling system involves a rigorous process of sorting, further processing, and redistribution. Residents come to the Recycling Centre with their rubbish already sorted into five streams: glass, organics, sanitary products, hazardous, and the Recyclapod, the star of the show. The Recyclapod is a small waste processing unit that lets workers separate and clean any recycling. From here, they’re separated again into streams for on-island processing, or export. On-island recycling includes cardboard, organics, plastics, and glass. Cardboard is compressed and fed to the carboniser, creating pure carbon. Organics become compost for local gardens. Plastics are shredded and mixed with carbon, lime, and water, before being extruded and granulated into concrete aggregate. This is an otherwise expensive building material, the availability of which reduces the mining of local raw materials (my cousin used it to make her own kitchen countertop). Glass is processed into sand, meaning less sand is mined from our beaches. Amazing, right?

Since the Norfolk Wave started, my Mum’s been its biggest fan. The last time I went back home, one of the first things she did when I entered the house was show me her new trash set-up. In her everyday life, “the Norfolk Wave made me super aware of all the useless plastic we buy and how dependent we are on packaged food from overseas … which is why I started getting powdered milk again!”. Side note, you guys are sleeping on powdered milk. But Mum loves taking her sorted rubbish to the tip now, and said, “The Centre’s always playing really groovy music, the workers are super smiley and making conversation”. Good management, happy workers, great vibes—it doesn’t get much better. 

With reduced greenhouse gas emissions, increased local employment, reduced waste management costs, and resource circularity, the Norfolk Wave really is the best thing to happen to the Island since 4G wireless broadband (we’re still waiting on 5G).

At the upcoming Pacific Arts Festival in Hawai’i, there’ll be a 3-day symposium, with one day dedicated to talking about environmental issues. Three members of The Norfolk Wave will be speaking at this event, sharing their story with other Island nations, informing them on how to get communities on board, and how the Norfolk Wave can help other Pacific nations find and adopt a similar model. It’s here that the Norfolk Wave will quite literally be creating waves of positive movement in the Pacific.

I share this story because I know how hopeless it all feels, especially when everything we see tells us that doomsday is upon us. We’re allowed to sit here in this space of worry, anger, and pain. We can let it breathe and have our moment to be mad at the world for fucking us over. But we’ll need to pick each other back up soon, put our shoes on, walk out the door, and do the fucking mahi. We’ve got a long way to go, but if we start now and do it together, we might have a chance. 

I promise you, there are good people doing good things.


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