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Plastic free Urupā
ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary

Plastic free Urupā

Is it time to say goodbye to plastic flowers?

Over the last few years, the plastic free movement has taken off. Plastic bags are no longer given out at supermarkets, keep cups are a staple at cafes and recently plastic cutlery has been banned across the country. In a time where plastic reduction has become so normalised, have you ever thought about the use of plastic flowers in cemeteries? 

Our Bicultural Lead Ranger, Terese McLeod (Taranaki Whānui, Clan McLeod) has and has been advocating for plastic free urupā/cemeteries over the last few years. We spoke to Terese about her journey. 


A few years ago, Terese was working in the Kaiwharawhara catchment carrying out a rubbish audit with freshwater scientist Amanda Valois. This involved collecting rubbish within the stream system and sorting it into categories to see what’s polluting the water and where it may have originated from. During this audit Terese started to notice a trend.  

“We started pulling out lots of plastic flowers and I just asked the question ‘where are these coming from?’” she says. It turns out these flowers were all blowing in from the Karori Cemetery.  

“You dig a bit deeper and it's the second biggest cemetery in New Zealand. It is alongside the stream network system. They're blowing off the graves into the waterways and turning up at different parts of that stream’s journey.”  

“By tracking and tracing that, we started a relationship with the representatives that look after that cemetery and having conversations about plastic reduction in that space. So, it really started in the Kaiwharawhara stream.” 

Plastic decorations left on graves cause a problem when they blow off graves but also when they break down over time, becoming microplastics in the natural environment in and around the urupā.  

For Terese, it was important that she started this project of plastic reduction in urupā in her own backyard before approaching other cemeteries. This included Opau Urupā, her whānau cemetery in Makara which was instantly onboard with the idea. The other perfect spot was in her family urupā in rural Taranaki that is surrounded by the ocean, a lake and a river. Terese describes it as a “trifecta of plastic getting into those systems simultaneously”.  

This approach was “borne out of not only wanting to get some street cred in my own backyard, but also wanting to be positioning our iwi to be leaders in this contemporary space. To really put our environmental values on the table, which seem to have been misaligned or disconnected from in some ways.”  

“We're not practising our roles and responsibilities, I don't think, to the fullest if we're going to harm the environment in those spaces by having that kind of material in them.” 

Terese was surprised that what seemed like a no brainer idea to her, sparked a lot of anger and resentment towards her from some of her whānau up north. She believes this stems from people feeling like they aren’t caring for their loved ones if they don’t leave some form of decoration there.  

“Traditionally, Māori didn't decorate any graves with the $2 Shop or the Warehouse plastics on it. That wasn't a traditional cultural practice. So, it's a contemporary expression with the availability of these plastic flowers and windmills and all sorts of things that people are getting at low cost which have the potential to cause, and do cause, enormous environmental harm.” 

When faced with this backlash, Terese used her community as a sounding board (including her Mum!) to whether she was moving in the right direction. Thankfully this support helped her realise her voice was just as valid as her cousins’ and that te taiao needed her to speak up on its behalf.  

She also gained inspiration from Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne. “I'm inspired by the foundation of Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne, where [the founders] created this space of innovation, imagination, and creative conservationism. So, I think about how courageous it was back then to try and get people to understand the vision of this place, because that's quite hard for people sometimes to get somebody else's vision.” 

“I can't back down when you know how incredible these taonga are and how looking after the environment is so critical.So that gives me courage when I feel like I’m met with significant resistance from my iwi, my whānau and my hapu. Whenever anyone is having a go at me, I remember that, because Jim [Lynch] stood his line and now look. So sometimes you can stand it and see it out.” 

As we move into the festive season and people go to visit their family members in urupā, cemeteries and graveyards, we hope that you take the opportunity to leave something other than plastic flowers for your loved ones.  
 
Terese shares, “The thing I do is I leave everything of myself at various people's graves I visit and also nothing of myself. Often, I’ll read poetry. Sometimes I'll just take a thought and leave that thought there. I used to do the odd waiata. Often, I’ll do a karakia or something. So, you can take so much profoundness to that space without leaving damage on it.” 
 
If you’d prefer to leave something physical, natural materials like driftwood, stones or fresh/wild/dried flowers are all options that avoid leaving plastic to break down.  
 
Terese feels that despite the reaction of some of her whānau, that the project is gaining momentum with things like the Opau Urupā declaring itself plastic free and colleagues getting involved in their own family cemeteries. “It seems small, but it's not really because Zealandia was an idea that grew into a global movement. So small things have momentum, and they get results.” 

“That is how change happens”. 
 

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