Over but not out for Xtreme Zero Waste founder

Xtreme Zero Waste recently bid co-founder Rick Thorpe a fond farewell as he stepped down from official duties.

But retirement is definitely not on the cards for this passionate conservationist; he knows the cogs for positive environmental change keep turning and he’s not about to rest on his XZW laurels.

For Rick the process of stepping back has been happening for several years as he has slowly decreased his responsibilities at Xtreme.

He’s secure in the fact that XZW is in good hands as he has watched the team flourish, and under the stewardship of new general manager Stephen van Wonderen, Rick is certain that will continue.

“I have full confidence in Steve, Niki, Nenya and the team. I know that Xtreme will do all sorts of amazing things in the waste space.  It’s a tight crew with great skills”

Taking the XZW model he helped develop over 22 years ago, Rick now has more time to pour into Raglan Community Energy, an enterprise he has been part of for several years.

The idea is to set up a solar farm and roof installs, sell power back to the grid and syphon profits back into the community via community projects and gifting of power to vulnerable families and individuals.

He’s also continuing to work one day a week in a zero-waste advisory role for the Auckland City Council. It’s a role he has been working on for several years as the council sought advice on how to replicate XZW in the region, starting at Waiuku.

“We pretty much condensed 18 years of Xtreme into 18 months at Waiuku to achieve the same results.”

Of the 21 independent zero-waste operators Auckland council has committed to, Rick says they are well on the way to achieving their goal with 11 contractors now operating in the Tāmaki Makaurau region.

There’s also the work he is doing with the Waikato Wellbeing Project, a regional initiative to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to minimise the impacts of climate change.  

It’s all starting to add up to full time mahi for Rick.

And, of course, there is the permaculture farm he and wife Liz Stanway developed on land they purchased in 1992, that has always kept them busy.  The land provides most of their family food requirements, timber and firewood.

But life isn’t all work and no play; Rick recently bought a sailing dory with an electric outboard that the family are enjoying on the harbour.

Rick spent some of his formative years in Fiji and completed a marine biology degree at the University of the South Pacific. It’s where his passion for the sea and nature were fuelled by tropical water and reefs.

The promise of surf and windsurfing was what drew Rick and Liz to Whāingaroa and having worked for many years in conservation, he couldn’t ignore the environmental call to action in his newfound home.

Rick and Liz were both still working for World Wildlife Fund and Department of Conservation and, with firstborn Zak in tow, the family would spend several years on the move as mahi took them to Fiji and Rarotonga.

Zak had begun his bilingual journey at the Kokiri and it was here that Rick presented his idea of helping bring marine life back into the harbour to Tuaiwa Hautai ‘Eva’ Rickard.

Whaea Eva’s advice was to go up the hill to the dump and address the toxic leachate flowing from landfill into the harbour.  

“Eva was right – it was the land-based activity that was having a negative impact on the harbour.”

Rick says a lot of kudos for the harbour regeneration also goes to Whāingaroa Harbour Care who planted over two-million trees and 600-kilometres of fencing around the harbour and river margins.

In 1998, and with new addition Pania, the family were back in Raglan ready to lay down permanent roots.

Sadly, Whaea Eva had passed away a month before their return and Rick felt a deep responsibility to fulfil her wishes to deal to the dump.

“She was a real visionary and I felt an obligation to start this work.”

Alongside Liz, Tuihana Bosch, Katarina Wirangi Mataira, Pine Campbell and PJ Haworth, Rick helped develop a business plan for taking over the dump from the Waikato District Council.

Xtreme Waste was born in 2000 and despite initial scepticism from council and the community, they began employing locals, engaged in numerous ecological restoration projects and diverted waste from the landfill.

In the first 18-months of operation, Xtreme achieved 74 percent waste diversion.  Since then, it has achieved an annual diversion rate between 71-79 percent.

Having spent most of his career working with nature, first as a wildlife ranger and working with endangered species around the world, it was in Whāingaora where Rick was able to be intimately involved in positive community action.

“There is a high level of collective consciousness in Raglan that enables us to have these interesting conversations about the environment and participate in ecological restoration.”

The eternal optimist, Rick believes wholeheartedly in the power of people to bring about change.

“I love Margaret Mead’s famous quote – Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

Janine Jackson