Q&A with Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, Founder of Plastic Free July

By Nisha Balaram

Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, Founder and Executive Director of the Plastic Free Foundation, a nonprofit organization that organizes the annual Plastic Free July challenge, has more than twenty-five years’ experience in the world of environmental and waste management, community engagement, and sustainability behaviour change. In 2011, Prince-Ruiz started the Plastic Free July Challenge, where, what started as a grassroots campaign with a handful of participants in Western Australia has now grown to millions of people across 170 countries taking up the challenge to refuse single-use plastic every year.

What motivated you to start the Plastic Free July challenge? 

It really started with the challenge but I’ve always been mindful of how the changes on land have an impact on our waterways. I lived on a farm when I was younger, where we had to lose the farm when I was eight. This small farm was in Southwestern Australia, where we cleared natural brush. As the clearing happened, salt rose to the surface and there had to be clearing bans. I was so devastated, because we loved our farm and didn’t want to move.

Seeing the amount of plastic that exists really spurred me to start the challenge. When I visited a recycling facility and saw the volume of waste we produce, and understood the complex process of what happens to our waste once we throw it away, it made me realize that I wasn’t doing the planet a favor by filling up the recycling bin.

What do you think was the plastic free movement’s key to success?

There are a variety of reasons why people join. Some people are really motivated by the social justice cause, where there are inequities as we ship our rubbish off to other countries. 

For me, it was after I visited that recycling facility and  I could picture the trash leaving my house, going to my facility to be sorted then being piled up, and, in my case, shipped to another country. It became so real and tangible. I think in some ways it has felt complicated. I had young kids at the time and wanted to do something big. I thought, I am really committed, but it felt difficult to do everything. We weren’t trying to do everything but were trying to find ways to reduce our plastic use. 

What do you envision as the future of Plastic Free July? 

I hope that the impact gets better. Our vision is a world without plastic waste, and for me, on a personal level, I believe it’s really about behavior change. However, we’re not going to solve this issue through behavior change alone. We need to change our policies, legislation, regulation, with the right environment to make these changes. I feel it’s a little bit like chicken and egg. It’s not one or another; it’s everything that needs to happen. As concerned citizens, we can come together and make a difference. 

My hope for the next ten years is that we can harness awareness of the plastic pollution problem, and from that, leverage this movement where we have real solutions to match the problem. It’s critical that we’re not talking about single-use plastics and then shift to another single-use material. Also, we want to make sure that change is global and scalable. What we do in the West needs to support people from developing economies who don’t have waste management systems. 

What are you particularly proud of?

There have been so many moments. It’s all of those small comments from people saying thank you for the challenge. It’s the personal stories. People sometimes ask me, “don’t you feel overwhelmed?” I feel like I’m a glass half full person. I get to read these stories of people doing things everyday in their own lives in their own communities. It gives me hope.  

One moment happened in 2012 when we started using social media. I had shared something on our page about what I’ve been doing at my local farmers market to reduce the use of bags and coffee cups. Afterwards, I received a message from Hollywood farmers markets that were doing the same. This was my first moment thinking, “Wow, we can make a difference.” It’s not just me and my community of people concerned about it. 

Another recent example comes to mind. In New Zealand, Air New Zealand made an announcement to double down on their efforts to reduce single-use plastic. They’ve removed plastic water bottles from flights. And, they’ve mentioned that they’re doing this for Plastic Free July. 

How has your work transformed your day-to-day life? 

(laughs) Transformed or taken over? Even when I travel, I’m conscious of my footprint. No matter who you are, we deal with this material on a daily basis. In my personal life, I don’t preempt conversations about it, but people in my network and in my family are aware of what I do. Even if I try to avoid talking about it and try to have some work-life balance, the stuff is just everywhere. But on a daily basis, it’s really heartening to see that people are genuinely concerned about [plastic] and want to be a part of the solution. Our approach isn’t negative, doom and gloom. People just want to do something differently. Now it’s about creating new habits and new social norms, and I think we’re ready for that. 

Any obstacles that you’ve faced? 

A challenge in the coming years will be that solutions might not necessarily be what they appear to be. I’ve heard people say that they’ve reduced their use of plastics and changed over to bioplastics. Depending on where they live, it may be a good option, but there is a challenge of having these biodegradable plastics in our waste stream. A lot of of these materials end up in bins destined for the landfill anyway. So, people think they’re doing the right thing but it’s not always the case. We need to make sure that the solutions fit the problem, and that we don’t end up transferring the problem somewhere else.

Organizations in this space needs to, with great care and respect, work with businesses and other organizations to support them in finding real solutions. Collaboration is really critical at the not-for-profit level. 

If people are interested in joining you to become more plastic free, where should they start? What resources should they look to? 

We have a page on our new website with resources. There are also plenty of bloggers who have started taking this challenge, where they have ended up working on this issue full-time themselves. 

The original group of people who did the Plastic Free July Challenge with you – where are they now?

I’m not in touch with all of these people, but they’re working on plastic free issues in creative ways. One is active in the community gardening space, working on composting and local food production (another important area in reducing our waste). Another is a lecturer at a university working with students in design, where students are looking to reduce their plastic waste. 

If you could tell one thing to the general public, what would it be?

I would say that the plastic out there in the environment is our plastic, and we can all do something to make a difference and leave behind a different legacy. Do one thing in your daily lives to reduce your use of single-use plastics. 

Nisha Balaram is a freelance environmental reporter and documentary filmmaker interested in reporting on local solutions to environmental problems. Her most recent work highlighted the utility of wetlands as flood control and the problems bioplastics are creating for consumers and waste management facilities. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in documentary film at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can view more of her work here.