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August 14, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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To Each Their Own: New Models for Water Care

An Interview with Sam Judd of Sustainable Coastlines


“Nature has introduced great variety into the landscape, but man has displayed a passion for simplifying it. Thus he undoes the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds . . . Have we fallen into a mesmerised state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?”

— Rachel Carson


I’ll forgive you some nihilism. In an age of global problems, worsening environmental outcomes, and a government so out to lunch they’ve stayed on for spaghetti pizza, it can be hard to know where to start. What effort should I make that is worthy? Well, says Sam Judd, environmentalist and co-founder of Sustainable Coastlines, it all starts at home: “The challenges we face are global, but the solutions to solve them are local — they have to be.” As Sam points out, we can’t be everywhere, and nor would we want to be.

Started in 2009, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Sustainable Coastlines is all about getting out there and making a difference you can see: planting trees, clearing rubbish from beaches and streams, and setting in place the systems to ensure it doesn’t get there again. “Our mission statement is to enable people to look after the places they love, so it’s only going to happen if the local people have the resources, the established business models, and the mentorship, the access to the training, and the tools — that’s how we’re going to solve these challenges: many many people using best practice solutions.”

While Sam’s own story began with connection — what he describes as “a pretty deep love for the ocean” — his awareness from being a surfer and spear-fisherman soon expanded. Cleaning up beaches was satisfying on multiple levels but, as Sustainable Coastlines grew, Sam says his motivation has only increased: “First of all I didn’t want to see my playground getting trashed, and then, you know, we started creating jobs in the middle of the global financial crisis… But the motivation’s bigger than that, it’s bigger than the environment… The challenge is relevant to human health and to our own family’s health, really.”

The issue is plastic, what we do with it, and how our excessive use is coming back to bite us. As the environmental movement has long explained, we live in a closed system: there is no “away”. Discarded by humans, plastic enters the ocean, eventually breaking into pieces small enough for fish to eat — where, in Sam’s words, “it has the potential to contaminate their flesh with carcinogens and endocrine disrupting chemicals — and I feed fish to my own family, just as many people do… this is an issue that a lot of people care about.”

The buzzword is scale. What ways can you get a broad cross-section of society involved? While not targeting your usual “tree huggers”, Sam explains how connecting litter with poisoning seafood is a game changer: “As soon as you’re talking about bad behaviour starting to impact whānau, it’s got a much broader base of support, particularly in older people… I can also take that story into a prison and I can motivate hardened criminals, who are mainly violent offenders, to put their energy and time into helping us, because the one thing that they all miss is whānau.”  

Engaging the prison population is part of Sam’s answer to a long-standing shortcoming of the environmental movement: getting numbers on the ground. For most people life is frantically busy, and it can be hard to find the time to move from caring to acting. Cue the Department of Corrections, their ten thousand inmates, and the huge number of people serving community sentences and orders.

Originally recruited to help exhausted volunteers with auditing rubbish, Sustainable Coastlines have been working with the Department of Corrections for some seven years now, first with people serving community-based sentences, and now in the prisons themselves. Sam is quick to point out that at no stage is anyone forced to be involved. Instead, it’s about “creating tools and solutions that work for different demographics of society.”

It might seem uncomfortable at first, but engaging the prison population to improve water quality is a far cry from say… oh, I don’t know… underpaying prisoners to wash your laundry (as VUW was discovered to be doing earlier in the year). As Sam explains, it’s a common good, organised by a nonprofit, and run in a way that seeks to benefit the prisoners, not exploit them. Prisoners receive education and eventually qualifications, improving their productivity during the clean ups, but also working toward a goal to reduce re-offending. In many ways, it’s about giving back — the sort of rehabilitation Corrections would do well to incorporate more of… why not have it help the planet?

Building on their work with community-based offenders and the rubbish collection and auditing they help with — part of their education and behavioural change efforts — Sustainable Coastlines have recently established a native tree nursery at Waikeria prison in the Waikato. The nursery grows plants specifically targeted towards riparian planting, with local rangatahi marae-based initiative Pūniu River Care working to get the plants in the ground, helping to filter runoff and restore the river back to a healthy state. Sustainable Coastlines is involved here too, passing on their knowledge and connections, helping to empower the social enterprise to achieve their goal and protect the places they love.

If all goes well, Sam plans to expand the work at Pūniu: “My aim is to run a large scale pilot, with four prisons and four local nonprofits, in the upper North Island, and plant 1.6 million native trees in the next three to five years.” As with their other work, detailed monitoring and evaluation will be used, with the end goal that of a model for cleaning up water while creating jobs and reducing reoffending. “If we’re able to establish that… my prediction is that it would roll out nationwide immediately and then internationally, because every community has poor water quality, and every community has crime, and everyone needs jobs.”

While I’m not exactly the most job-loving of humans, the thought of an industry around replanting is extremely appealing. And as Sam explained, the journey to incarceration is one of alienation, so it’s about finding the things that do motivate people: “A lot of these guys, they don’t want to go work on a dairy farm, they’ll be more likely to sit on the couch, to sit on the dole than work on a dairy farm — but if you’re talking about a marae-based social enterprise where they grow and plant trees with their cousins, and clean up the water so their kids can swim in the river without getting sick, and so that they can catch tuna for their tangis and birthdays and special occasions, then you’re starting to hit an area people actually want to work in.”

It all comes back to the local, the places that resonate most. While Sam pointed out the fit between the high levels of Māori incarceration and Māori spiritual connection with the whenua, the motivations for such work are varied — irrespective of background. “Whether your motivation is for looking after local species, or catching eels, or whether it’s being able to go surf in a river mouth without getting sick, or if you’re a bird lover — it doesn’t matter, the same intervention can achieve all those things, so that’s where we’ve seen it become quite effective.”

In addition to their physical labour, Sustainable Coastlines also work to educate and raise awareness, telling the story of what happens when plastic goes in the ocean and seeking to reduce its incidence: “a fence on top of the cliff rather than being the ambulance at the bottom.” To this end, they’ve recently built a new education centre on the Auckland waterfront, working with both the council and Mount Eden Prison. In similar fashion to the planting scheme, prisoners receive training and skills while working towards protecting the environment — in this case using repurposed materials to help construct the centre — enabling participation and a sense of ownership for those society would rather forget.

One criticism of the environmental movement is its often negative framing: focusing on the things we need less of, not more. Sustainable Coastlines looks to target both, removing the source of our problem and seeking to inspire action around flourishing environments and our connection to them.

In the context of life on earth, humanity is but a blip, with our current, growth-based economic model just a small footnote at the end. It’s easy to dream of a different system, but we are where we are and, as Sam points out, now is the time to act. “We need 500 Zealandias or something, but to do that is going to cost an incredible amount of money… we need hundreds of millions of native trees to even start to look at turning the scales on water quality, amongst several other interventions… we’re talking very, very big numbers and very big current cost models, so we need to innovate to create tools that deliver solutions efficiently, and that requires thinking outside the square.”

Add that to our shameful incarceration numbers and the potential to address ongoing recidivism, and you’ve got the start of an interesting, large-scale mix. As Shannon Te Huia of Pūniu River Care says of the prisoners they work with: “It lets them become involved in something bigger than us all.” And in that bigger world, the care we need to help it: one tree at a time.


Sustainable Coastlines run a number of tree planting and training days around the country. You can find details online or, if you’re looking for a postgrad topic, Sam indicated an interest in working with people keen to help the cause: anything from monitoring and evaluation systems for restoration work to behavioural change interventions. In his words “there’s all sorts of different fields we need help with from the academic world” — they’ll be on the ground, waiting.


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