Heading Upstream: Addressing the Plastic Pollution Problem

By Rebecca Prince-Ruiz

Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, founder of Plastic Free July, was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research innovative programs for raising awareness, management and solutions to the plastic pollution problem.

Over six weeks in early 2016 I visited the USA, UK, Netherlands and Hong Kong to meet with individuals and organisations working on the plastic pollution issue. My goal was to bring back a new understanding and knowledge to improve the Plastic Free July challenge and to share solutions with the Australian community. The Fellowship provided a unique opportunity to gain an overview of solutions and strengthen and create networks. You can read my full report here.

My Fellowship itinerary involved meeting with individuals and organisations working on the plastic pollution issue across a wide spectrum with each one providing valuable insights and learnings. Every interaction was a highlight, a selection being:

  • Visiting Hawaii to see plastic pollution washed up on the beaches and collected from the stomachs of seabirds firsthand. Though confronting, this deepened my understanding of the issue.
  • Participating in the 2016 Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions (POPS) International Youth Summit in California
  • Spending two weeks in San Francisco looking at policies, innovations, programmes, not-for-profit organisations, trash capture and waste management facilities working towards the goals of Zero Waste to landfill and Zero Trash to waterways.
  • Visiting the UK and meeting designers, innovators, philosophers and systems thinkers to discuss the role of the circular economy in designing out plastic pollution and exploring practical solutions
  • Meeting activists, bloggers, authors and artists from all four countries whose passion and dedication to the plastic pollution issue inspires action and works for change

Heading Upstream: A Framework to Address the Plastic Pollution Problem (R.Prince-Ruiz)

Plastic pollution is a significant problem with environmental, economic and social costs – particularly in the world’s oceans. To fully raise awareness of the problem there needs to be collaboration around both information gathering and developing solutions. The focus on the problem needs to move beyond the ocean and beaches to the source in terms of choices and decisions that are made upstream. In Australia a range of organisations are working on the problem but need to come together at a national level to achieve results.

There is no one single solution to the plastic pollution problem. It will take a range of solutions across all three categories of collection, management and reduction, involving all stakeholders of governments, corporations and communities (see diagram above). Around the world I visited many individuals and organisations working on innovative solutions to the problem. The volume of plastic production, the ubiquitous nature of disposable plastic and the habits of modern consumerism mean that the problem is larger than any one organisation or stakeholder. Thus collaboration, and a connected approach which shares solutions, is required to avoid duplication of effort, to maximise impact and shift plastic material flows from the current linear system to a truly circular economy.

Through the Plastic Free July challenge, public speaking opportunities and other initiatives I hope to continue to raise awareness of the plastic pollution problem, start conversations and be involved in heading upstream to develop solutions. Alone we are a drop, together an ocean!

Contact Plastic Free July here.