The Good Oil

Matt Lamason didn’t realise when he started Peoples Coffee in Wellington 14 years ago that one day it would provide a platform from which he could do some utopian walking. But lessons from his adventures in pursuit of the perfect bean reinforced the principles he had been inspired by in his studies, and inspired him to aim for the horizon. And now, as they say, he’s ‘making a path by walking’, one that his community will be able to drive down propelled by biodiesel made by their cooperative action, out of the waste from Kāpiti’s fish & chip shops.

 

“She’s on the horizon…. I go two steps, she moves two steps away. I walk ten steps
and the horizon runs ten steps ahead. No matter how much I walk, I’ll never reach her.
What good is utopia? That’s what: it’s good for walking.”
– Eduardo Galeano, Walking Words, 1995

 

A politics degree with a focus on development studies led Matt Lamson to an interest in Muhammad Yunus (the Nobel Prize-winning founder of the Grameen Bank and pioneer in concepts of microcredit and microfinance), which convinced him of the ability of alternative economic models “to totally lift people out of poverty, to change their dignity and their whole trajectory.” So it was natural that when Matt founded his company Peoples Coffee that he would gravitate towards fair trade, and the pursuit of beans led him to farms in Latin America and Africa where he discovered not only coffee, but first-hand experience in different modes of social and economic organisation. These farmers were often members of co-operatives, which piqued his interest and led him to delve into the mechanics. “The ones that worked well were quite astounding; the sense of connection, camaraderie and solidarity with each other.”

For small growers, a co-op was a form of safety; those who weren’t members were “very vulnerable to the coyote street trader”. Co-ops are not without their issues, admits Matt – “from the outside it would be easy to just label them as socialist consensus idiots who’re never going to get anything done.” But on balance, although that can sometimes be true, Matt says he saw co-ops forging a whole new culture, and fostering resilience – another of his passions.

Matt was inspired to try to turn Peoples Coffee into a co-op, so headed to Boston to spend some time with Equal Exchange, a large fair-trade organisation with a “multi-million-dollar turnover”. They took him through their operation and he was struck by their culture and the language they used: “‘Nobody is going to get rich out of this, we’re leaving it to the next generation’ – all the conventional economic theory was just out the window.” Aren’t we supposed to be competitors “trying to get one up on each other”?, he mused. Equal Exchange had turned that on its head.

But turning the culture of a going concern on its head isn’t easy. The loss of control was daunting, and ultimately, Matt says, in an existing workplace, “staff just want to turn up and be paid”. If he was going to build a co-op, he was going to have to start from scratch.

Illustrations: Tom Ryan

Matt wasn’t only influenced by Fairtrade and co-operative organisations, but also by an economics book from the 70s, Small is Beautiful by E.F Schumacher, the ‘local-food’ movement and by permaculture (permanent-culture), which Wikipedia explains as “a system of agricultural and social design principles centred around simulating or directly utilising the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems”. He had become interested in the potential of doing things for yourself, building community resilience and local solutions to “the volatile world that we find ourselves in”.

Four years ago Matt moved to Kāpiti, north of Wellington, and joined the Steiner community there; became a member of their veggie co-op, became a home dad, and thought “what the fuck am I going to do with my time?”

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Kāpiti Biodiesel Cooperative Ltd was an idea sparked by a farmer outside of Brisbane who was making biodiesel off-grid. “It was a real mess,” remembers Matt. “It had a centrifuge and some tinfoil for the solar heating. But I thought, aha, this is not rocket science, it works and it’s not that hard to do.” And it reinforced another lesson from his African adventures, they “use everything and waste nothing. In Tanzania I have pics of a coffee farmer who had made a pit for his cow shit that had a simple plastic lid with a stone on it to pressure methane up to his shack to cook with. This sort of ingenuity, using traditional (low) technology fascinates me.”

He had the idea, time, a DIY spirit and a desire to create local solutions, but couldn’t see a messy backyard operation being viable. So he did some research and found Springboard Biodiesel in California, which produces a CE-certified machine you can fit into a shipping container, into which you put used oil and catalysts, press a button and it produces biodiesel with which you can fuel a car. Critically, the community was already engaged in co-operative culture, and Matt wanted this to be a community project, to provide jobs, and to prove that you can “change the world through a different kind of economic model”.

The missing link: money. Matt received an email with a tip that the Kāpiti Coast District Council had a community fund for projects that closed waste loops. Word was, it was often uncontested. So he applied, but it was being distributed in amounts that wouldn’t see the project fly. He was advised to apply the following year, when there would be a $50,000 fund “that often gets snapped up by the big waste management people for a side project, so I contested that and got it a year ago”. The co-op will be pumping biodiesel by the time Stone Soup hits the street.

The council have “some strong intention in their ten-year plan for a low-carbon economy,” says Matt, and the $50k fund “is not ratepayer money, so it’s not political money, it’s money that comes from people taking their junk to the tip”. They are redirecting money made from managing the district’s waste into investment in waste minimisation with a waste levy grant. Perhaps because of the human scale of a council and population the size of Kāpiti district, they are open to human-scale solutions, and Matt confirms the people that he’s dealt with in the council have been very open-handed and supportive. “They’re not a super city, they’re a small provincial council with some very progressive people on the ground, working a bit closer to the community.”

There is a lot of used fish & chip oil in New Zealand, most of which Matt says goes to Christchurch to an old Solid Energy plant which now produces biodiesel, “mostly for the fishing industry and the council”, and some of it gets exported to Asia. It’s a commodity, but also a resource which Matt wants to keep in the local loop.

Independent fish & chip shop owners the co-op approached have mostly been very receptive to somebody local taking their used oil. It is a commodity, but of low value, so the service they receive can often be lacking, and being local, the co-op can guarantee to take the oil more regularly. A 200-litre barrel of used oil can be worth between $30 and $60 for a chip shop, but some shops have been happy to gift their waste to the co-op because of the nature of the enterprise. Kāpiti Biodiesel Cooperative Ltd hopes to inspire some of the larger chains like Hell Pizza and Burger Fuel, which have a high volume of waste oil, to start directing it towards local biodiesel production.

Can any vehicle pull up at the Kāpiti Biodiesel Cooperative pump and fill the tank without clogging the arteries of the car? “All older diesels are sweet as,” says Matt. “The older the car, the easier it is to work with.” He drives a 2011 Volkswagen diesel which he intends to propel with his biodiesel. But there is a risk with late-model vehicles and there is a disclaimer that every member signs that lays out exactly what issues can arise. For instance, “in the middle of winter,” Matt explains, “you wouldn’t run it through your engine in Southland, because it would gel in your lines, so you’d mix it. You can mix it to any proportion you want with mineral diesel.”

Not only is the Kāpiti Biodiesel Cooperative closing a waste loop in their area, they’re also reducing carbon emissions. Matt proclaims an American EPA study shows “there is an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas by using biodiesel over mineral diesel. “It’s a great stat,” he beams. “That’s significant!”

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So how do you become a member of Kāpiti Biodiesel Cooperative Ltd and get access to this good oil? You buy a share for $150. One share per person (which you can redeem if you want to leave), which gives you one vote. And you have to make a commitment to buying fuel from the co-op. If you don’t buy fuel after six months, there might be a gentle suggestion that “you cash in and get out because other people might want to have access.” At their current scale, the co-op will have limited shares as their machine can produce approximately 1200 litres a week, which they anticipate will fuel around twenty families.

“Initially it was going to be entirely voluntary,” explains Matt, “and there would be me, unpaid, corralling people to collect oil.” He realised this was going to be unsustainable. “I’m just a guy who loves to start things and hates to manage them,” he admits, and previous experience has taught him you need to build the structure “from the get go”. So the co-op has been set up as a legal entity and as a business, and a manager has been appointed who will do most of the operational work. “It’s a business,” explains Matt, “but instead of talking about profits and investment, we talk about surplus and rebates.” As the operation is refined there will be some roles which are rostered and members “who are time rich and money poor” can work in exchange for fuel, and others who want to be part of the co-op to access biodiesel can participate by being shareholders and paying at the pump. But “it is a co-op”, says Matt, so “we have some expectation that there might be a site clean, for instance. You’re a member, come and be engaged.”

The co-op has a board of directors, and that will be another expectation. “Have a go on the board, it won’t be onerous,” promises Matt, and “within a couple of years it will be probably only be six meetings a year.” The expectation is that participation on the board will cycle through the membership. Inspired by the veggie co-op, Matt proclaims “it’s such a different experience being on the committee, you really get that sense of buy-in and camaraderie. We’re really doing this and it’s quite incredible.”

Co-ops are often written off as utopian if they don’t work perfectly, but all organisations both private and public require constant refinement and rely on rules and often coercion. Through participation in management, the community refines its institution together. “Look at the top-performing private companies,” says Matt. “Leadership makes a huge difference, for better and worse. And I think it’s similar in co-ops, good leadership can have that deft touch of articulating things in a way that doesn’t beat down on people, that is always expecting the best of them.” But a key difference about co-ops is that “there is a lot of opportunity to spend more time with that and ask how can we be better humans, and when we get together how do we treat each other, because we’re not driven by our KPIs (key performance indicator) and our salaries and the different tiers of management all barking down on each other.”

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Is Kāpiti Biodiesel Cooperative Ltd a model? Building open knowledge so others can follow? “Yeah totally,” enthuses Matt. ”Part of the reason for putting it in a twenty-foot shipping container is not only because they are also waste; they are rife, cheap, easy to fit out and can be moved anywhere. The biopro and the whole operation is relatively small, and can fit in one.” The co-op has been set up “with the intent that when we’ve paid off our capital (within two years) any additional profit would look to support other groups. We’d share that knowledge, for the purposes of creating more local resilience in provincial New Zealand.”

Matt has been advised by friends to build scale into the project at the start — the potential is clearly there — so that once operational, it’s already a model which can be rolled out beyond Kāpiti. “You could quite easily get a turn-key expert to come in and manulaise it,” says Matt. “I’m not a turn-key guy, it’s not the way I think, but I guess that’s a lovely thing we could do quite simply.”

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With the oil pumping and a manager in place, Matt is already writing himself out of the biodiesel story, ready for the next space where a social venture can build a better world. “I loved setting this up, but I lose interest pretty quickly, and the truth is, nothing new can happen until the old is parked in capable hands.”

Matt has a genuine interest in and a lot of energy for the space where the world of food and drink intersects with social issues, and last year, with chef Martin Bosley and a few others, a charitable trust was set up (tradeschoolindustries.org) to train female inmates to be baristas and to provide employment which will shepherd them into the hospitality industry. Trade School Industries is opening a cafe in Naenae, Wellington, “which will be a landing pad for people coming out of prison. When they’re finished their sentence and are released to work, they’ll come and get paid to work and we’ll provide social wrap-around support.”

“There’s so much talent and hustle and energy in the specialty barista scene, and to be able to bring these young people into the prison to give them the experience of mentoring these women” is empowering for both parties he explains, and it also helps with the “wider societal demonisation of prisoners, realising that we’re all the same”.

Matt’s eyes are clearly still on the horizon.