Author, presenter and environmental campaigner Natalie Fee is a strong advocate for tackling plastic pollution. Prior to her talk as part of our South West regional committee’s annual dinner, we caught up with Natalie to discuss why she decided to make eliminating plastic pollution her full time job.
There has been a lot of media coverage recently about plastic pollution in the oceans, but this issue can seem far removed from our day to day lives. How serious is the plastic pollution problem in the UK?
Plastic is something we come into contact with dozens of times a day, so it’s hard to forget it’s a problem. Also, it’s worth noting that out of the 7.7 billion plastic water bottles us Brits are using each year, only half of them are being recycled. And out of those collected for recycling, only 9% are recycled here in the UK. The rest is shipped abroad, often without evidence of what happens to it next, and often to the countries whose rivers contribute 95% of plastics in the ocean. Our plastic is amongst it. So although ‘ocean plastic pollution’ can sound remote, the fact is that plastic waste from a family household as far inland as Birmingham could be found floating in the Pacific Ocean.
But people are really switched on to the issue. We recently commissioned a survey which showed that 85% of people in the UK are concerned about plastic pollution and are trying to do something about it.
Why do you think this issue in particular has gained such public attention in recent months, over other environmental problems?
Well of course there’s the Blue Planet II effect, which brought the issue of plastic pollution into the nation’s living rooms, but it’s also because plastic pollution is so obvious. Plastic rubbish on every beach, riverbank and hedgerow means that, unlike climate change or air pollution, we can’t deny its existence and besides that, it’s ugly too. We may have a few disconnected litterbugs amongst us, but on the whole people don’t want to see their local environment covered in plastic. And we don’t want wildlife eating it either.
What spurred you to start campaigning about this issue?
Initially it was watching a video on Facebook back in 2013 or 2014 about the Albatross chicks of the Midway Islands in the Pacific dying in their nests with a belly full of plastic. I was devastated. I knew in that moment that I simply couldn’t sit back and watch this happen. So from that day I set about doing something about it. I had no idea where to begin, so I decided I'd just do what I love most – make a song and dance about it! Literally. I ran a crowdfunder to make a music video about plastic pollution that I hoped would go viral and change the world. It didn't! But it's called Burden and you can find it on YouTube. And it turned out to be an important step on the way to setting up City to Sea.
Why did you set up City to Sea and what are the aims of the organisation? What role do you hope City to Sea can play in the debate about plastic pollution?
It didn't matter that my music video had 'failed' to make a measurable impact. That was actually just the beginning. I took the momentum I'd created from the crowdfunder – business contacts, individual supporters – and founded my own campaign organisation whose mission was to stop plastic pollution at source. And I started going on beach cleans!
Fast forward three years and now City to Sea is an award-winning organisation with a team of 17 staff running campaigns to stop marine plastic pollution at source. Through our fun, solutions-focussed initiatives, we're empowering individuals to make a difference in their communities, working with corporates and retailers to help them tackle plastic pollution and reaching millions of people with our digital content.
We had our successful 'Switch the Stick' campaign in 2016, calling on all retailers to swap from plastic to paper stem cotton buds (a move which will stop over 400 tonnes of single-use, non-recyclable plastic at source every year). Then in 2017 we went on to work with UK water companies on our 'Unflushables' campaign, raising awareness about the 7% of plastic on our beaches that's coming from our homes and are currently piloting a menstruation education programme in 22 schools.
Now in 2018, we've recently secured two years of funding to scale up our free, national drinking water campaign, Refill. Refill makes refilling on the go easy, fun and rewarding through our free Refill app, and this year we won gold for 'Best Behaviour Change' in the Global Good Awards! We now have over 12,500 Refill Stations on our app across the UK, with national chains like Costa, Wetherspoons, Greggs and Morrisons signed up to the scheme.
What do you think are the most successful and realistic solutions to tackling plastic pollution?
It needs to be approached from the top down as well as the bottom up. Packaging-related industries can influence and block decisions that could radically stop plastic pollution at source. So we need to sign petitions, write to our MPs and keep on showing our support for initiatives that reduce plastic pollution. The same is true for our supermarkets – they respond to consumer demand – so we need to keep up the pressure on them to drastically reduce their packaging and stop using non-recyclable plastic altogether.
What can we do in our everyday lives to reduce our individual levels of plastic pollution?
Adopt a simple mantra; if you can’t reuse it, refuse it. And if you really can’t avoid some single-use plastics, just do what you can to prioritise refilling where you can. Cook more food at home and take it with you, carry a reusable botte and download the free Refill app to help raise funds for our campaigns!
One common argument is that individual actions are too small, and do not make a significant difference in tackling the issue. How do you respond to this argument for not reducing plastic waste?
I generally respond to that by saying ‘But it’s only one bottle … said 7.7 billion people’.
Any final message?
Never underestimate how powerful you are when it comes to making change happen. And when you make a switch, if the alternative to what you were doing before feels better, smells better or tastes better make sure you tell all your friends.
Tickets for the South West regional committee’s annual dinner including Natalie’s talk have now sold out. If you’re interested in hearing more from Natalie, check out her TEDx talk on why plastic pollution is personal.
And if you’re in London, you can hear Liz Bonnin talking about marine plastic pollution and what can be done to avert disaster at her lecture on 29 November. Book now
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