A chat with eugenie

It was a chilly afternoon. I was sitting in my home office, aka my bedroom, decked with fairy lights, scattered paintbrushes, and scavenged flower finds from my state-allocated walks outside. I was wrapped up in an old grey hoodie. It was another usual afternoon under lockdown, except this time I was about to zoom chat for 30 minutes with the one and only Eugenie Sage.   

Now, to introduce Eugenie if you’ve never heard of her before. She is a current member of government, a team member of the Green Party, and works as the Minister of Conservation, Minister of Land Information, and also as the Associate Minister of the Environment, focusing on waste.  

Wondering about the difference between the Portfolio for Conservation and Portfolio for the Environment? Me too.  

Eugenie explained, “the Ministry for the Environment is largely a policy-based agency, so it hasn’t got any operation responsibilities for managing species and habitats”.   

In contrast, about one-third of New Zealand is made up of public conservation land, national parks and reserves, as well as marine reserves and marine mammal sanctuaries. “So, the Department of Conservation, under the Conservation Portfolio, holds responsibility for all of that third of NZ,” Eugenie said. The work DOC conducts are mainly operational, such as managing huts and tracks, and focusing on protecting our threatened native species.   

Within the waste space, Eugenie is working with the Ministry for the Environment on policies of how New Zealand can upgrade its recycling system, including how to re-process more materials onshore. She said that one project they had just completed discussions on prior to the COVID-19 lockdown was increasing the landfill levy as an “economic incentive to divert waste from landfills”. Eugenie explained that our country’s levy is already quite low compared to elsewhere in the world, and “the revenue we get from that levy goes back to minimising waste, spent either by local authorities or through government waste minimisation grants for progressive businesses and community organisations”. She said they are investing in infrastructure so we have recycling “re-processing capability here onshore,” now that China has closed its borders to our waste.  

Eugenie also said that a communications campaign helping us to understand what we actually can and can’t recycle is in the works. She said, “labelling is critical because I know people want to do their best but unless they’ve got an easy system and have clear information labelled on containers, it makes it really hard. We know that those are challenges and we are working on solutions”. 

Further projects include the National Resource Recovery Programme and creating a more consistent recycling system. Eugenie said, “Curb-side systems are different around NZ. We are really lucky here in Christchurch in that the Council here has been really progressive and we have green waste collections which can be made into compost. Auckland doesn’t have that.” 

When looking at the world’s rapid response to the COVID-19 situation, I’m hoping these lessons can be applied to our action on the climate crisis. I expressed these thoughts to Eugenie who agreed saying, “we’ve majorly changed the way we live day to day in response to Covid-19 in order to protect ourselves, our health system, our most vulnerable. This has shown the potential for even more massive change in order to protect the planet, the climate, and particularly future generations from the huge impacts that a warming planet has”.  

She said, “Air pollution on Riccarton Road was down 70% as a result of the lockdown due to no traffic. I think people who are exploring their own backyards on local walks are recognising the importance of local nature”. Eugenie explains that in the aftermath of the COVID-19 situation, it will be critical to make sure our responding economic development focuses on investing in people and infrastructure that will “help us switch to a lower emissions pathway in order to protect the environment”.  

It has been a journey to get where she is today. Eugenie began her career studying a Bachelor of Law and Arts, majoring in History at the University of Auckland. After that, she thought journalism seemed “more engaged with the world,” and found herself on our turf studying the post-grad Journalism course (RIP). After this, she found herself working for Forest and Bird, advocating for Councils to better protect nature. It was her passion for protecting the environment which provided a southern cross style constellation to lead her where she is today. Eugenie said that the best part of her job was “meeting so many New Zealanders who are so passionate about caring more for nature and about making changes in the way we deal with waste”.  

In the final few minutes of our call, I asked Eugenie what life advice she’d tell her 21-year-old self.  Calling her career a serendipitous one, where she never intended to go into politics, she said, “follow what you are passionate about, really interested in, and where you think you can make a difference.” Her love has always been protecting nature and look just where this passion took her.    

By Samantha Mythen