Pollution in the form of plastic bags in Te Kopahou reserve, in a valley up near the Tip Track.
Wellington’s Te Kopahou reserve is home to rare plants and threatened species, and it’s the proposed new home for kiwi, if a project to bring our national bird back to the capital goes ahead.
But this wild, rugged shrubland, 600 hectares of rolling cliffs and gullies on the south coast, is also flanked by the city council and two private landfills – and it shows.
Local botanist Joe Dillon said the reserve was “one of the most amazing areas in Wellington” for rare and endangered plant species, but quite often strewn with plastic and waste, which blew over the landfill boundaries on the capital’s signature gales.
The landscape, although “strange and scrubby”, was home to speargrass, which hosted a critically endangered weevil, and sea holly, a rare herb threatened by environmental degradation around the country.
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It was also home to the last mature coastal forest in Wellington City, which sat right below the landfill. “Walking through there, it’s just covered in plastic,” Dillon said. How much plastic, exactly? “I wouldn’t be shocked if it was tonnes.”
Wellington City Council had logged no complaints during the past year to April 23 regarding rubbish escaping the boundaries of all three landfills.
Complaints had been received in the past due to the tip face being adjacent to the public trail, the Tip Track, but C&D Landfill installed a perimeter fence at the end of 2019 to reduce litter blown into the reserve.
Plastic waste was a source of toxins and microplastics, which made their way through the streams into the ocean, threatening the marine environment. They also created a physical barrier, smothering vegetation and mistakenly eaten by browsing animals.
Dillon and his fellow conservationist, Island Bay resident Chris Logan, walked up through that valley, and were shocked at the difference between the pollution they found and the pristine environment closer to the coast.
The city council controlled the area for weed, such as bone seed, gorse, and old man’s beard, but a group of locals has banded together to care for the area in more ways than just weed removal – Logan and Dillion are two of the founding members.
“This is a precious landscape,” Dillion said. “We can’t afford to have plastic blowing into it.”
Huge plastic bladders each weighing as much as 20,000 plastic bags are being dumped in landfills with no controls.
Logan had spent years as a contractor for the council, delivering plants to community groups around Wellington, showing him firsthand how much good they did for the environment.
“In another part of my life, I’m a keen mountain biker and walker,” Logan said.
The 4WD Club and Capital Kiwi project were both instrumental in the protection of the area, along with some local residents, in terms of pest trapping. However, on his regular journeys through the reserve, Logan had come to realise the place needed guardianship in other ways.
The streams had some of the purest water in the region, according to the Greater Wellington Regional Council, but the public was unaware of “the fragility of that environment – the plants in particular”.
The reserve was home to goats and pigs, which destroyed the ground and native plants. “Private landowners and landfills don’t do enough in terms of predator control,” Logan said.
One walk along the Tip Track had revealed an eroded section of earth, with layers of plastic bags – it looked like a whole truck load – buried in the side of the stream.
The group was in its “fledgling” stage – but cleaning up the rubbish would only be the beginning.