News | 6 July 2021
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Taranaki Whānui declares New Zealand’s first plastic free urupā

Taranaki Whānui iwi has officially declared Opau Urupā in Makara, Wellington as plastic free, the first urupā (Māori cemetery) nationally to do so.

Image of Makara Urupa road sign credit Darin Campbell
Makara Urupa road sign credit Darin Campbell

They’re encouraging the community to use sustainable, plastic-free ways to commemorate loved ones instead of using plastic flowers. 

Opau Urupā Makara Committee co-chair Holden Hohaia (Ngāti Maru/Taranaki Whānui) says that he hopes the action will inspire others across the country to do the same with their urupā and other cemeteries.   

“Declaring the urupā as plastic free is a no-brainer,” says Hohaia. 

“This declaration means we become part of the solution to plastic pollution and the risks it poses to our environment,” continues Hohaia. “It aligns directly with our role and responsibilities of kaitiakitanga, and, to our environmental values.” 

The inspiration and idea to explore the possibility of plastic free urupā came from the partnership project Sanctuary to Sea Kia Mouriora te Kaiwharawhara. The project is led by Wellington ecosanctuary, Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne.  

Lead Ranger of Bicultural Engagement at Zealandia, Terese McLeod (Taranaki Whānui) is supportive of the move to go plastic-free. “I noticed large numbers of plastic flowers from a local cemetery turning up in the Kaiwharawhara Stream during a rubbish audit”. She adds, “This made me think about my own whānau urupā and how we might make a change for the better.  As far as I’m aware, nobody else has done this yet in NZ, so I hope that it can become a growing trend that other urupā and cemeteries can adopt.”

The goal of the Sanctuary to Sea project is to engage the community throughout the Kaiwharawhara catchment to improve the hauora (health) of the Kaiwharawhara awa (streams) corridor. The project partners were looking for ‘out of the box’ solutions to support this kaupapa when the idea for the plastic-free urupā was raised. 

McLeod says that an important part of this project is working with the community over time to make the vision for a plastic free urupā a reality.  “This is not about plastic ‘policing’ the urupā, no plastic placed on graves will be removed,” says McLeod. “Instead, it is about encouraging behaviour change and considering other environmentally friendly ways of honouring those in urupā.” 

Wellington City Council is a key partner in developing and maintaining the site, and is leading significant efforts to enhance the environmental outcomes in the area.  Together, Taranaki Whānui and Wellington City Council have planted 500 plants for a shelter belt plant plan to provide cover in bad weather during tangihanga with special plants to go in at a later date. Many more will be planted in the coming years.

Myfanwy Emeny, Open Space and Parks Manager at Wellington City Council, says that the shared mahi at Opau Urupā has been very rewarding.  “We also share the same kaupapa around reducing plastic use within cemeteries.  We are now encouraging natural materials such as fresh flowers and woven flax as a more environmentally friendly way to decorate graves, and we’re exploring the potential for growing wildflowers and other plants at the cemeteries that can be picked as an alternative to plastic flowers.”

Alternative ways to honour friends and whānau without plastic include: 

  • Establishing a picking garden at urupā 
  • Flax
  • Dried leaf confetti  
  • Paper flowers 
  • Driftwood 
  • Stones 
  • Reading poetry, reciting a karakia or singing a waiata.