For the latest in my series of stories about people doing life differently, I met with Amanda Chapman, a young Auckland-based activist, passionate about reducing waste, community and building her own Tiny House. Here is her story…
How many 12-year-olds do you know that would choose "Cruelty on Bears" as the topic for their school talk? Probably not a lot. But, at an age where most girls would have chosen to talk about family, friends, fashion, sports or similar topics, “Cruelty on Bears” is what Amanda Chapman chose – and then invested her heart and soul into, putting together a talk that left many of her classmates feeling shocked and sad.
Amanda wasn't a 12-year-old acting out or trying to shock people for attention, she was merely being true to herself. While some of us don't really figure out who we are and how to be true to ourselves until well into adulthood, changing direction several times before we get there, others seem to know who they are from a young age and simply stay on course as they grow up. Amanda's story is an example of the later.
It might not be surprising that Amanda wasn’t your average girl growing up, given her childhood wasn’t exactly average. Born in Auckland, it was just her and her mum, and they moved around a lot which meant Amanda had to deal with constant change and being ‘the new girl’. While this diverse and, at times, disruptive lifestyle was certainly challenging for a young girl, looking back now, Amanda can see the benefits. It meant she got to experience different lifestyles, from the busy city life in Auckland to life in the suburbs and rural life in the Coromandel. It made her adaptable, flexible and what you might call ‘street-smart'.
However, meeting with Amanda, I couldn't help but wonder if who she is today has much to do with her upbringing at all. Talking to her, you get that feeling that this is someone who simply is who she has always been and was always meant to be.
Amanda is a doer. An activist at heart, someone who is motivated by a desire to make a difference and inspire people. As a child, animals were her big passion. This later extended to the environment which led to her studying environmental science at university and then taking a job within the compliance team at Auckland Council.
However, Amanda quickly realised that compliance wasn't her world. And neither was working 9-5 in an office. While an interesting learning opportunity, it simply didn’t give her enough room to actually make a difference and educate and inspire people. And it didn't leave enough time outside of work for what she calls her ‘Passion Projects’.
One thing Amanda and I have in common is that we both hugely value time. Amanda says having time for her passion projects is key to her happiness, something I can relate to very much. Like me, Amanda is someone who has chosen a life of less (paid) work, less income but more time to follow her heart. A simple life that isn't measured by status, titles or materialistic items but by the extent to which she can pursue her passion and make a difference.
One of her big passion projects is waste-free living. While she has always been conscious of her environmental impact, a cruise to Vanuatu in 2015 was the game changer that motivated her to go even further. Amanda remembers being shocked by the excess and ‘too-much-of-everything' culture she experienced on the cruise ship – and the lack of awareness of the waste it produces or the right processes for managing it. She was shocked by the unavailability of reusable cups at the coffee shop on board, plastic straws in everything, food left-overs being thrown out and the amount of waste left on the beach by the passengers after a day trip. That experience led to Amanda leaving the holiday with a heightened sense of awareness of the waste issue we're facing and the burning desire to find a way to do something about it.
Initially, Amanda decided to participate in Plastic-Free July, but it quickly became more than the theme for a month. Committing fully to a zero-waste lifestyle was not easy, especially given that at the time, it was very unusual, the waste issue wasn’t talked about much yet and getting certain items and foods without packaging was impossible. But Amanda was committed. Cooking all of her food, using whatever ingredients she could get her hands on without producing waste and saying no to things she couldn't get without waste, Amanda made it work. And she started blogging about it (http://www.wastefreeland.nz) to share her experience and inspire others to be more mindful of their waste.
During her first waste-free year, Amanda learnt to get creative, and she figured out ways to make it work. However, she also learnt an important lesson about personal sustainability. As much as she was committed to minimising waste, she also realised how being completely waste-free was taking a lot of time and effort and that she would like to take some of that time and energy to spend it on other projects that are equally important and impactful, if not more so.
Today, Amanda keeps waste to an absolute minimum but has accepted the fact that being completely waste-free is simply not sustainable for her personally. Instead, she has shifted her focus to other important projects, such as setting up Auckland’s first community fridge in Griffiths Gardens, in the centre of the CBD. And right now, she is working on setting up the Auckland Library of Tools, a tool library where people can borrow and share tools instead of having to each buy their own (many of which would sit around unused most of the time and would eventually turn into waste).
Amanda has another big project right now: Building her own tiny house. Without having any building experience or the tools needed, Amanda set off to build her own tiny house from scratch – and she is making it work, as I saw with my own eyes during the little tour she gave me. While still work in progress, you can already see that it will be pretty amazing. Staying true to herself, Amanda has used second-hand material and cut-offs whenever possible meaning her house helps to further reduce the waste in our landfills. Once done, it will be entirely off the grid, running on rainwater, solar power and with a composting toilet.
One of the things that impressed me most about Amanda is how she has approached all these projects with a can-do attitude and a willingness to learn whatever she needed. She didn't shy away from projects or tasks that she didn't know how to do. Instead, she learned how to do them and asked for help when needed. And while Amanda herself admits that she was often a bit naive about how much effort and time things would take, or how, in the case of the community fridge, the public interest would put her in the spotlight, she does always pull it off in the end.
But she also does admit that she gets a bit overwhelmed at times. Building her own tiny house, in particular, has been a roller-coaster ride. After the initial enthusiasm and motivation to get it weatherproof, Amanda hit a wall and struggled to find the motivation to keep going for several months, feeling overwhelmed with the task at hand. But after taking a break for a few months she is back into it now and, having found a place to put it and live in it, she's excited to get it finished soon.
As far as work is concerned, Amanda has found the right balance for herself. She now works part-time for We Compost and United Sustainable Sisters, both organisations that align extremely well with her personal interests and passion and leaving her with enough time for her other projects and to enjoy life.
When asked what she believes the important things in life are, Amanda's answer is simple: Time to follow your passion and having the right people and community around you. She says it's great that she has found the right balance between work and time for passion projects. But she also believes she wouldn't have been able to achieve as much as she has if it weren't for the people in her life supporting her, lending a hand when needed, encouraging her when things get tough and motivating her to keep going.
Looking into the future, Amanda feels positive that big change is coming in the way that our society deals with waste and environmental issues. She has seen a massive increase in awareness over the last few years and is excited to see that more and more people take responsibility for doing their part. The topic is top of mind for more and more people, reducing personal waste is becoming more accessible and easier, and more prominent initiatives, like the nation-wide ban of plastic bags, send the right signals and further help to increase awareness.
However, she also sees massive challenges coming our way. One area that she is particularly concerned about is education and how we gather insights and information. Even though most of us now have access to all the information in the world thanks to the internet, too often we don't know what is true and what's not. Just as it is effortless to find information these days, it is also very easy to share information. Anyone can post something online and present it as facts without needing any experience or proof and without being held accountable. As a result, there is a lot of information out there presented as the truths when it's not, and it can be tough to tell the difference – especially given we all, by nature, find it easier to believe and learn things that confirm our own opinions instead of those that challenge our thinking.
On a personal level, Amanda isn't sure yet exactly what the future holds for her and being only 27 years old, she has plenty of time to figure it out. The one thing she does know for sure is that we won't see her working a 9-5 office job.
She would like to travel more to, as she puts it, “experience more instead of just reading about it”. And she also thinks she might want her own family one day and to raise kids that grow up with a sense of awareness for the environment and social issues and a desire to be the next generation of change-makers.
For now, she will just continue to work towards her ultimate goal in life: A tiny house, an electric bike and a campervan to travel in. That simple!
Before we part ways, I ask Amanda what her philosophy to life is and what advice she would give other people. Her response is simple but important. And I couldn’t agree more with her.
“Don’t worry what people think about you! Unless you’re being a dick…”
What I learnt from Amanda:
I find Amanda's can-do attitude really inspiring. I loved seeing how much she has achieved even though she didn't have the experience or skills needed when she started. I'm someone who often likes to have all the answers before I get started. But hearing Amanda's story and seeing her achievements makes me think I should dive into the unknown more often and just figure things out on the go.
Amanda’s top two tips for reducing personal waste
I asked Amanda to share some simple but highly impactful ways to reduce our waste. She says two things would make a huge difference:
1. Compost your food waste(unfortunately this is really hard to do when you live in a campervan…)
2. Reduce food packaging waste.Food packaging is a major source of waste, so Amanda recommends looking for ways to get food without waste. Buy more food from local farmers markets (bring your own bags), get your meat from the local butcher (they are usually happy to put it into your own containers), grow your own food if you have the space, or buy from the increasing number of bulk and package free stores where you get food in reusable containers.