“They want us to think that individual change makes all the difference. They certainly don’t want us… changing anything at a systems level,” says Tina Ngata. (Photo: Naja Bertolt, Unsplash)

Tina Ngata is known as an outspoken critic of colonial systems. But she didn’t get her start on that kaupapa in a lecture hall. Here, she explains how it was plastic that led her to consider the structure of power.


Back in 2013, I was teaching a degree in Māori environmental management in Tūranganui a Kiwa, when I came across a documentary about plastic pollution in our ocean and its impact on the toroa (albatross).

By the time the doco had finished, I was changed forever. From the plight of the toroa, I learned about the devastating impact plastics have on our ocean. In my need to take some kind of action, I made a pledge, and I made it public, so that I’d be held to account: I committed to not buying any more plastic for the following year.

Friends encouraged me to blog my journey for others to follow — and thus was born the Non-Plastic Māori blog.

Over that year, I fastidiously tracked every bit of plastic waste I created, including the use of all the stuff I’d bought before my pledge. I weighed it. I found solutions so I didn’t have to buy more plastic. I continued to pick plastic up off the beach. And I excitedly shared every single non-plastic solution I could think of.

Month by month, my plastic count dropped as I found more solutions. Then, as Plastic-free July hit, I had an idea. If I could pick up more plastic than the waste I was producing, I could create a net negative waste impact. I loved that idea!

Even better, if I could inspire others to join me on the same journey, I could increase the negative waste impact. We could get plastic out of the ocean, and also stop it going in!

I thought I was so neat, and considered this a practical, material solution to the problem. “WE ARE THE SOLUTION,” I sang from every platform I could find.

And then I saw the figures about how much waste was going into the ocean — over 2 billion kilograms of plastic waste a month. And, as much as I’d tried to be conscious of the privilege it took to reduce my plastic footprint, I realised that it was still an idea built off an unrealistic expectation that everyone else would also be able to give up plastics, and go out to pick up rubbish from their nearest beach.

The truth of the matter was that even if I could continue to avoid plastic — to pickle, and bake, and live from what I could grow in my māra — and even if every household in Aotearoa stopped buying plastic and started picking it up instead, it still wouldn’t save our moana. It still wouldn’t save the toroa. Papatūānuku would still be at risk, Tangaroa would still be choked, the future of my mokopuna was still at risk.

In short, I realised individual action is not enough. I realised we had to deal with corporations, governments, and institutions. We had to turn the problem off at the tap. The solution had to be political.

And so I learned about power. I learned that plastics companies are also oil and gas companies, and have always been interlocked with the military. I learned about how these companies exploit natural disasters and pandemics. I learned about the links to capitalism, and to racism. I learned the true extent to which they would go in their pursuit of profit.

I saw, over and over again, that those with the most power to make change, did not really want to make that change. They were more interested in protecting their power and privilege. I asked the question: “Where do these companies, and the governments that permit them to act this way, get the right to do this? To plunder other people’s territories, to kill other people, to desecrate sacred areas and rob our mokopuna of their future? Where do they get the right?”

One of the crucial answers which came back was the Doctrine of Discovery.

And so my blog became less about recipes and non-plastic tips, and more about colonial power abuse. I had come to the understanding that if we didn’t address the willingness of those in power to cause harm to particular groups, then the threat to our future would remain, just in a different form.

I also saw how my previous approach actually helped the plastics and oil corporations: they want us to think that individual change makes all the difference. They certainly don’t want us speaking to power, or changing anything at a systems level. And so that is exactly what we must do.

Was I happy that I took on the challenge of going plastic-free at an individual level? For sure. It was a powerful, practical lesson on the systems around me. When I was on that journey, it felt like it was an important step towards rangatiratanga — and, importantly, it helped me to believe in myself and learn more about Indigenous solutions.

Just as importantly, I came to learn that if rangatiratanga is about the wellbeing of the collective — and if that collective extends not just to you and your neighbours, but also to your hapū, your human and nonhuman relations, the living, the no longer living, and the yet to live — then the change needs to be so much more than catching a feed or baking bread.

The solution has to be inclusive and accessible to all. It has to be about systems, and it has to be about power.

That was when the complexity became crystal clear. The solution to so many of our struggles — climate, ocean, health, child poverty, hyper-incarceration, and so on — was the same: decolonise. For all the struggles that we face, the answer is to decolonise our systems of power.

A decade later, this is just as important as ever. This colonially racist, white supremacist, corporate-centered government is hellbent on distracting us. It will continue to throw harm our way in all its different forms, to keep us occupied with  multiple battles, and distracted from the parental problem of colonial power.

It will try to convince us that we already have power, or it will pretend that it’s being responsible with its power, or it will tell us that we aren’t ready for power. It will try to convince us that discussions about power are unnecessary or unrealistic. These are all colonial fictions.

For that lesson, I will always be grateful to have seen the power in plastic.


Tina Ngata (Ngāti Porou) is a researcher and scholar, and the author of Kia Mau: Resisting Colonial Fictions. Her work involves advocacy for environmental, Indigenous and human rights. This includes local, national and international initiatives that highlight the role of settler colonialism in issues such as climate change and waste pollution, and which promote Indigenous conservation as best practice for a globally sustainable future.

© E-Tangata, 2024

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