‘Plastic pollution is a global problem. It knows no boundaries. We produce, use and dispose of it across the world. It moves in the water, and has now entered our food chain. Our future looks scary with an estimated 40% increase of plastic production over the next ten years.
Tracey Read is the founder of the Hong Kong registered charity, Plastic Free Seas. She shares with us why our lifestyle of convenience is so damaging and how her charity combats plastic pollution through education and what we all can do to help alleviate this problem.
|PHILANTHROPIC FOCUS||Educating young and old about the problems of plastic|
|QUOTE YOU LIVE YOUR LIVE BY||Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world - Desmond Tutu|
|ROLE MODEL||Captain Charles Moore (Algalita Foundation), who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage patch in 1997 and who has worked on plastic pollution from the start; he was the one that told the world about it. He has so much energy, enthusiasm and an incredible sense of humour.|
How did your philanthropic journey start and why did you choose to focus on plastic?
By accident, we moved from the UK to Hong Kong in 2005 and I stopped working as a nurse so I had a lot of free time and I spent majority of it on the beaches. I was just really shocked at how much rubbish there was at the beach. So, I joined a local green group and offered to do a beach clean-up. 50 people showed up and in just four hours we had removed 1.5 tons - we were really excited and the beach looked amazing. Guess what? – all the rubbish came back again. I then thought that I need to keep going with this so I organised another beach clean-up and then another one and another one.
I heard about the Great Pacific Garbage patch and I thought this is incredible and why are there not any photos. I asked myself is it really a giant floating island of rubbish? That prompted me to join a research expedition in 2012 to see for myself and we sailed from Japan to Hawaii. It wasn’t quite the giant floating land mass described; it was more like a plastic soup and this was even more shocking as you were in the middle of the ocean. This trip was the catalyst for starting the educational charity ‘Plastic Free Seas’.
Please tell us a bit about your organisation Plastic Free Seas and what are your initiatives?
Everything we do is around education so we talk to people about the problems but also about the solutions.
The main areas we work with is in schools and we have already engaged with 125 schools and taught more than 55,000 students – considering we are a team of three this is quite an achievement!
In addition, we have a corporate programme, holding educational lunches and promote clean ups with a number of companies. Such corporate engagement helps to fund our youth education programme.
Furthermore, we try to push the government and big businesses to implement policies to have an even bigger environmental impact than the personal behavioural change that we promote with individuals as well.
Once described as the most important invention of the modern world, why has plastic become such a problem?
The problem with plastic is that we are drowning in it and it is entering our food chain.
It is everywhere – in the oceans, our soil, the air we breathe, the food we eat and in the water we drink. Only a small fraction of plastic is recycled, the rest is incinerated, in landfills or escape to the environment. You hear about people who try to live zero waste or zero plastic lives and it is just so hard. It is a full-time job in itself to do that. Plastic is constantly pushed at us. It’s in all parts of our lifestyle and you can’t get away from it. Unless our consumerist lifestyles and current systems of business change radically it is only going to get worse.
Is there a substitute for plastic?
For some items plastic is the best thing to use but for many other things we just don’t need it. The latest statistics for 2017 indicate that 348 million tons or 40% is used for packaging and mostly for food and drinks. Next time you are having takeaway food take a moment to look at all the plastic and polystyrene that is being used and consider what could be refused or next time, avoid the throw away plastic and use your own container, cutlery, cup or bag.
What has been your greatest achievement so far with your fight against plastic?
We have pushed large music festivals, celebrations and sporting events to use reusable cups for years. In the last few weeks there have been a few major announcements like the Hong Kong Sevens (Green Sevens initiative) which is attended by over 120k spectators over three days and which will now have reusable cups. That is fantastic news as this is what we have advocated for so long and it is finally happening.
What has been the biggest lesson you have learned so far in your philanthropic journey?
There are no instant wins! Everything takes time.
Be prepared for a lot of research and know your stuff or you lose a lot of credibility if you don’t have your facts right. Also, be persistent but patient.
What are a few things I can do today to reduce my plastic footprint?
We talk about the ‘new’ three Rs: Refuse, Refuse, Refuse.
Have your own bags and say no to straws, also get a water filter and a reusable drink bottle as well as a reusable coffee mug. Do a plastic footprint investigation where you collect and keep all of the plastic in one week. You can then see what your plastic footprint is and then consider how you can make changes. Overall, talk about this problem and set a strong example for others. This is what we do at Plastic Free Seas, we lead by example, we show what’s possible and educate people.
What are your plans for Plastic Free Sea over the next three years?
We are looking to expand our reach in local schools and win back the children’s connection with our environment so they will help it and look after it. We are therefore building a programme to bring the beach and ocean into the classroom. We’re keeping it interactive and exciting so the messages sink in.
In addition, we are overhauling our website as we want this to be the single go to resource of information. It’s the place to click to if you want to know the plastic pollution facts or how you can minimise your plastic footprint.
What does your typical day look like?
I have a very early start at around 5 am. Once my children are off to school (with their waste free lunches and snacks) I sit and work on my laptop outside if I can. Working remotely for Plastic Free Seas entails writing and responding to a lot of emails as well as answering questions particularly from students if they have a project. I also do Skype calls with schools and am the first point of contact for the corporate programmes. I do a lot of research, planning and keeping up with the news and what is happening on plastic.
In the late afternoon when my children come home from school, I keep one eye on them to make sure their homework gets done while I continue my tasks. Then it is dinner, a bit of down time then early to bed.
How do you work with other organisations?
We try not to duplicate efforts and work to share resources with other organisations when we can. But obviously we all have our own agenda so having these working groups to drive one initiative can help to get things much further than if we try to do it alone.
And finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to set up a charity to fight a cause?
Don’t do it alone! It is just a phenomenal amount of work and you can get dragged down with the legal aspects of running a charity.
You need a good team around you. Find out what your strengths are and then identify people that complement you. Also, have your positive team around you when things go well but also for the significant lows. And speaking to people about what you do is a great way to establish connections. If you need help with something, don’t hold back from asking for it. Don’t think that you need to have lots of money, hold a particular degree or be in a particular profession before you can do something. A lot can be achieved with passion and grassroots action!
If you would like to learn more about Plastic Free Seas and the work that they do visit https://plasticfreeseas.org/index.html or search for Plastic Free Seas on Facebook.