What began as a post-quake clean-up has developed into a fierce monthly contest for staff from The George hotel in Christchurch.
For eight years, employees at the five-star hotel have been clearing rubbish alongside a 1km stretch of the Avon River, in a bid to help wildlife and ensure the riverbank and surrounds look pristine.
The environmental competition pits housekeepers and senior managers against chefs and reservation staff, with each hotel department trying to outdo the other’s monthly clean-up tally.
“Our staff get into all sorts of contortions to scale the bank to get that last little scrap of paper,” says Bruce Garrett, Managing Director of boutique hotel group Brook Serene. “Some bring fishing waders so they can get right in the water. So far nobody’s fallen in but one of the accounts team came dangerously close to sliding in.”
While the Park Terrace establishment was able to continue operating after the 2011 earthquake, hotel employees were horrified by the mass of debris in and around their beloved river and started the project after seeing ducks nesting among litter and liquifaction.
“It’s basically our front lawn,” Bruce says of the riverbank. “So we just started clearing a section. That first time, we collected 35kg of rubbish. Now, we’re struggling to get anything more than two or 2.5kg along that same stretch, which is great. We’d love it if there was none but we’re still picking up everything from beer bottles to postage [stamp] sized pieces of plastic.”
He says the welcome change in water quality is bringing wildlife back; hotel staff are now spotting eels and trout as they hunt for litter.
“The other day, we saw two people out there fly fishing. That was fantastic.” But he admits the litter project has sparked some competitive spirit between colleagues. Several have been caught straying from their designated location on both sides of the river between Armagh Street and Harper Avenue, sneaking down side streets to collect additional pieces of discarded waste.
While most employees leave their desks to help during a scheduled break, some come into the city on their day off, to don matching hotel t-shirts and grab their litter-picking tools.
“We do get some funny looks. Before we started putting everyone in the black The George t-shirts, I think some people thought we were PD workers.
“Confused council workers come down with their weed eaters and gloves on, to clean up, and you can see them standing there scratching their heads, wondering why there’s no rubbish over our stretch of the Avon.”
The initiative is one of a host of wastebusting innovations the hotel and its four sister properties – all part of the Brook Serene boutique hotel group – have seized on. Their latest initiative is a bid to recycle all aluminium products in all five hotels.
The George kitchen staff now wash used aluminium foil and fold it into tiny squares, to be stashed alongside squashed aluminium cans and all screw caps from wine bottles. A Lions Club service group collects the aluminium, sells it and the proceeds go to a charity for children with kidney disease.
Bruce hopes other establishments will follow suit with the aluminium project. “I’m trying to rally all Christchurch hotels to do the same.”
This article first appeared in Avenues magazine in June 2019