Waste to wilderness: Michael Sly with his springador, Ponti, a food scraps bin for compost and wooden pallets he's grown native plants in for transporting into the wilderness

Who doesn’t want to see more native trees and plants established in the Wakatipu?  Local entrepreneur Michael Sly gets rid of unwanted wilding pines to make valuable essential oil, but had always wanted to find a way to replace each wilding with a native.  He tells PHILIP CHANDLER about the solution he’s come up with

A Queenstown entrepreneur who’s made a thriving business converting wilding pines into essential oils is launching a community initiative as an offshoot.

Over the past year alone, Michael Sly and local aoTERRA co-manager Mathurin Molgat have rid the Wakatipu Basin of about 30,000 Douglas fir wilding pines.

In a ‘pest-to-product’ concept, they’ve steam-distilled essential oil from the pine needles to supply giant American wellness corporate, doTERRA, which distributes it worldwide.

However, to “complete the picture”, Sly’s always wanted a way to replace those 30,000 invasive wildings, say, with 30,000 native plants.

In the process, he’s come up with a brainwave.

That’s to mix the distilled needle chip mulch with household and restaurant food scraps to create a rich, healthy compost.

He worked on a pilot scheme with local organics producer James Porteous, which proved worms were happy eating this mix.

The missing ingredient came when he saw a large pile of disused builders’ wooden pallets when he was visiting the local refuse station one day.

Sly’s now using such pallets to host the compost, into which he propagates up to 100 native plant seedlings sourced from the forest floor.

When these seedlings grow, he then forklifts the ‘eco pallet’ – what he calls “a prefabricated one square metre of wilderness” – and plonks it down in whatever spot he thinks would benefit from some native plants.

“It suppresses everything underneath.”

For his ‘Waste to Wilderness’ programme – W2W, for short – Sly says rather than mountain tops, he’d prefer to see native trees, shrubs and ferns lining local trails and roads.

“Let’s make everywhere we walk or cycle, that we interact with every day, incredible.”

Sly says he has huge respect for the work of the Wakatipu Reforestation Trust and its volunteers, who each year plant thousands of native trees.

He believes his community initiative can turbo-charge their work.

His method, he says, guarantees a good strike rate, while also significantly reducing the labour and costs involved.

He also believes now’s a great time to try to encourage individuals and businesses to divert their food scraps from the dump.

Since Covid-19 restrictions dealt to the local tourism economy, “there’s basically a lot fewer food scraps, so it should be less effort to get the right practices in place”.

“Before, we may have been able to get rid of only 30 per cent of the food scraps going into the dump, now it might be 70 per cent.”

Sly’s put a food scraps bin outside his Speargrass Flat Road property, but hopes in time “people might take responsibility for, say, a street, and I would come and pick up the bin”.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘I’m taking care of my food scraps’, but to know your food scraps are going to become a native forest is quite a nice incentive to change where you place them, whether you’re a cafe, a hotel or a household.”

He adds that the project’s only been possible with the support of doTERRA, which allows him to use his distillation facility

Sly says he’s also looking for support from Queenstown’s council and refuse station contractor.

“But I’m also interested in the community taking responsibility – we can’t always lay everything on the council.”

He believes, too, that the project will only enhance Queenstown’s ‘clean, green’ credentials.