Wasted youth

Dried up pens, empty yoghurt pouches and toothpaste tubes, used coffee pods and plastic wrap – these are not the usual gifts to bring a 17-year-old, but Sophie Lemon loves ‘em. 

The Wellington East Girls’ College student runs a recycling depot for difficult to recycle items from her Lyall Bay home. She collects them, sorts them, washes them, then packs them up and sends them to an organisation called Terracycle

Terracycle is paid by certain companies to recycle the products, but the scheme relies on ordinary people to gather them up and send them. Helpers are then paid a very small amount for the waste returned. 

“I feel like I’m helping people by providing a recycling option for people who do want to help the Earth a bit more and reduce their waste,” says Sophie.

Sophie was always destined to be a waste warrior. Her family once won a city council award for being top recyclers in a streetside audit, landing them a golden recycling bin which set them apart from their neighbours. 

At age four she featured in the Dominion Post with bags of rubbish collected from Lyall Bay beach, a fundraiser for wildlife conservation efforts in the name of the late Steve Irwin, her then hero.

Sophie Lemon and Michelle Wilhelm collecting rubbish on Lyall Bay beach in 2009
Sophie, right, on Lyall Bay beach in 2009 with her mum Michelle and little brother Mikey.

It was a school project that got her started on the Terracycle project though. Her outdoor education class was asked to pick a research project on sustainability.  

“The Southern Landfill is near capacity and the council wants to get consent to build a new one. I looked up what recycling that we put in our bins actually get recycled in New Zealand and it’s only number 1 and 2 plastics,” says Sophie.

Sophie wanted to find a way to recycle other difficult stuff, came across Terracycle and set about putting it into practice.

Her first step was heading to local cafes to ask them to start holding on to their Gladwrap for her to send off for recycling.  

Local legend Maranui Cafe was one of the first to help her out and make a change in doing so.  

“Since I asked them to collect the Gladwrap – and I bring it home and wash it – they’ve slowly decreased the amount they’re using.” 

The act of collecting it has caused them to think about how much waste they’re creating, and they’ve started reducing it, she says. 

Sophie says she feels it’s important for everyone to do that: “Climate change is getting worse, and we need to help reduce our carbon footprint.” 

As the only Terracycle depot in Wellington’s Southern suburbs, and the only one in the region that will accept certain products, the family report that people are coming from as far away as Kāpiti and Porirua to responsibly dispose of products like coffee pods. 

“Nobody else wants to accept this waste,” says Sophie’s mum Michelle Wilhelm. “But it exists, so you gotta do the right thing now”. 

Sophie Lemon
Sophie Lemon, waste warrior.

The project — which has carried on long past Sophie’s school report on it — is more for love than money.  

Sophie has been collecting items for recycling since June, and managed to divert from landfill nearly 2500 coffee pods, more than 650 toothbrushes and sundry, and more than 1600 yoghurt pouches. For her efforts, she has earned about $70. 

But she is undeterred by her small earnings, and plans to up her operation this year by working on a website to promote it. Watch this space. 

The money she earns is going to another good cause too – Predator Free Lyall Bay. 

“It’s helping out another group that is helping the environment that is getting rid of pests to help native birds come back,” says Sophie.

“It can get really gross, especially washing the yoghurt pouches. But yeah, it’s worth it for that.” 

Sophie and mum Michelle are both coordinators for the local group, which covers Lyall Bay, Melrose, Rongotai and Kilbirnie – about 6000 houses all up. 

There are about 250 traps around the area so far, and the goal is to get every third or fourth household trapping so rats, mice, stoats and other creatures are no longer a threat to local native birds and other wildlife. 

It’s a lot of work, but Michelle says Sophie is learning valuable real life skills in her volunteer role with Predator Free Lyall Bay – fundraising and marketing, data collection, website development.

Sophie Lemon and Michelle Wilhelm
Michelle and Sophie, passionate predator free advocates.

The family were interviewed recently by the BBC about their predator control efforts which, while good for promoting the cause, was a little strange. 

“The BBC managed to twist to make it sound like everybody in New Zealand is this crazy barefoot hippy family that goes out trapping rats in the weekend.” 

While they do in fact do a lot of trapping, Michelle says they really are just ordinary Wellingtonians. 

They just happen to spend their time doing stuff that’s good for the environment – recycling tricky packaging, organising beach clean-ups and promoting predator control. 

They also get around in a cargo bike and haven’t owned a car for decades, despite having family members with disabilities. 

Michelle says it’s just always been important to her to limit her family’s impact on the environment, and they’re values her kids have grown up with. 

“More than anything it’s often been about income… Raising kids with disabilities, alone, with low income – it becomes even more of a no-brainer, because you just can’t be consumers. That’s where we’ve been able to step back and look from the outside and go, what are people doing?” 

Something the family would love though, is an electric conversion kit for their cargo bike so Michelle is better able to carry her 11-year-old son Elijah, and his wheelchair.

Charitable grants are offered for modification to cars for people in wheelchairs, says Michelle, so why not a cargo bike?

You’ll find Sophie’s Terracyle depot at 91a Freyberg St, Lyall Bay – there’s a bin just inside the gate. Here’s what you can drop off:

  • Oral care products: Toothpaste tubes and caps, toothbrushes, toothbrush and toothpaste tube outer packaging, floss containers and mouthwash bottles. No electric toothbrushes. 
  • Collective Suckies: The Collective Suckies yoghurt pouches, caps, tubs, packaging and yoghurt tubes. No other brands (eg. Fonterra suckies).
  • GLAD products and other food storage containers and bags: cling wrap, GLAD or other brand snap lock bags or freezer bags, GLAD or other brand zipslide bags, GLAD or other brand cling wrap, GLAD or other brand polypropylene (PP) food storage containers. 
  • NESCAFE Dolce Gusto Capsules
  • Writing instruments: all writing instruments (except for wooden pencils, crayons and chalk). Any brand of pen, felt tip, highlighter, marker, correction fluid pot (must be empty), correction tape, mechanical pencil and eraser pen regardless of their composition.
  • Bunch O Balloons: balloons, the fill stems and hose adaptors, the foil packaging. 

For any more detail on what is and isn’t accepted and best practice for recycling (hint: for most part save Sophie the job of rinsing!), please check out the Terracycle website.

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