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.

By Emily DiFrisco

Earlier this week, Anita Horan, a free diver, writer, and founder of the #PlasticFreeProduce campaign, celebrated a huge win near Sydney, Australia, when local supermarket Cole’s decided to sell loose carrots at the same price as the plastic-wrapped carrots.

The win was a culmination of more than two years of work for Horan, who runs her campaign from her social media accounts and speaks up to major grocery stores, small markets, and even farm stands about how they should stop packing produce in plastic.

Horan describes her Facebook page as an informative and interactive place to respectfully discuss, expose, and address the issue of unnecessary plastic packaging. “This is not an ‘anti-corporation’ page, as I don’t want to give any corporation the excuse to shut me down,” she nuances. In truth, she often does target the bigger chain grocery stores in effort to reach the average Australian consumer.

“Being ‘an average consumer’ I want to say it’s unacceptable that fresh produce is being packaged in increasing amounts of plastic,” says Horan, who adds that almost all of the produce packaging is virgin plastic that likely won’t ever be recycled. “Plastic is non-biodegradable. It does not revert to organic matter, it breaks down into micro-plastic or ‘micro-poison.’ Much of it is washing into the ocean, where it collects additional toxic chemicals and is ingested by marine life. We’ve only been using plastic for a relatively short time and already, in some places, 25 percent of the fish have plastic in them.”

“We need to revert back to a system where we don’t use any ‘single-use’ plastic. We don’t need our food gift wrapped.

Anita Horan

Horan first started thinking about plastic pollution as a free diver, seeing increasing amounts of plastic garbage in the water. She once went to retrieve a plastic chip bag from the water, and it “shattered’ into tiny pieces, impossible to clean up. Her first step to reduce plastic from her own life was to save all her plastic trash for two weeks, an experiment that she encourages others to try as well.

After visiting recycling facilities near her hometown, Horan was shocked to learn that less than 10 percent of plastic is recycled in Australia (the number is even lower worldwide). She wants to dispel the myth that recycling will solve the plastic pollution problem. “Increasing recycling or using biodegradable plastic each have their own complexities and are not the solution. We need to revert back to a system where we don’t use any ‘single-use’ plastic. We don’t need our food gift wrapped.”

Over the years, her campaign has gained followers locally and across the globe and has made huge strides with major supermarkets. At one point, after speaking up at Woolworths about plastic-wrapped sweet potatoes having a lower price than loose sweet potatoes, she returned home to an email from an anonymous source, offering her $10,000 to shut down her social media channels. Instead, Horan shared the email to her Facebook page. The very next day, she returned to Woolworths and found loose sweet potatoes in the front of the store at a much lower price than packadged.

In another instance, Woolworths started carrying unpackaged celery after Horan pressured the store in multiple social media posts. These successes give her hope to keep going. “To me, a nobody with no money, challenging a huge corporation, to see the whole celery back on the shelf was amazing. That showed the power of one.”

Through her videos and interactions with followers, Horan inspires real and lasting change every day. “I encourage people to grow as much of their own food as possible. I recommend growing kale, parsley, and basil as basics so people don’t have to buy any greens in plastic.”

[The supermarkets’] goal is to get our money, not to save the environment. I firmly believe that they will respond if enough people make a loud noise and say ‘I won’t buy your fresh food if you wrap it in plastic. I will only buy #PlasticFreeProduce.’

Anita Horan

The campaign vs. the supermarkets is an ongoing battle. “Even though we have hard-earned wins, the supermarkets often quickly revert back to their old ways as soon as the spot light is no longer on them,” says Horan. “Their goal is to get our money, not to save the environment. I firmly believe that they will respond if enough people make a loud noise and say ‘I won’t buy your fresh food if you wrap it in plastic. I will only buy #PlasticFreeProduce.'”

And she won’t stop speaking up until single-use plastic is a relic of the past. “I would love to see an end to plastic and a return to reuse,” she says of her vision for the future. “We bring our own containers, and we freely share our reusable bags, so we’re never caught without. All businesses openly encourage customers to bring their containers, cups, bags, etc. and it is fashionable to live a sustainable lifestyle.”

Visit the Plastic Free Produce campaign on Facebook and Instagram

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By Paul Hellier

I love Asian culture, the food, and the people. If there’s one thing that bothers me while traveling in Asia, it’s plastic. Mention plastic, and the response is always the same, “too much!”

I do what I can as an individual, and my dream is to crack this issue and reduce the scourge. Asia needs it. We all need it. Read more about the problem here.

I eat a lot of street food when I travel. I wander and watch what I am hungry for and buy food from someone not serving on plastic. Many street food vendors in Vietnam serve food on a plate with steel cutlery and wooden chopsticks, then wash up afterwards. It can take a bit of time to find a street vendor like this, so start your food adventure early to avoid those hungry episodes on the road.

Generally, you can sit down and have Phở (soup), Cơm tấm, (broken rice), or fresh spring rolls on a washable plate. Banh Mi (Baguette sandwich) always comes with a bag, but if you’re quick you can say “No” in Vietnamese ‘Không’, and you’ll be understood.

Coffee in a single-use cup is a tough one to crack. There are thousands of small Vietnamese coffee shops, chain cafés, and street vendors. The best formula to be plastic free on a trip overseas is to carry a reusable cup that has a handle and attach it to your bag with a carabiner. It will come in handy when venues serve sit-down coffee in plastic cups. 

My best travel tips: Ask for glass, carry your own cup, and support the small vendors who wash the dishes.

Paul Hellier is the founder of Fair Food Forager. This piece originally appeared here

Three years ago Christine Parfitt, a marine biologist from Western Australia, was volunteering at a turtle conservation project in West Bali, Indonesia. Parfitt was on a year long volunteer assignment when she met an incredibly passionate teacher with a deep love for the environment. 

Pak Yasa is a junior high school teacher who leads students on camping trips, bird watching activities, and turtle egg conservation. While joining Pak Yasa and his students, Parfitt noticed that these passionate students would clean up a beach and then drink from single-use plastic cups. She realised that there was a gap in education on single-use plastic waste. Together with Pak Yasa she set about creating an Environmental Education Program that would lead generational change away from single-use plastics. 

Today, more than 3,045 students and teachers have completed the program, each receiving a stainless steel bottle that they can now refill at school. The bottles are all designed by students in an annual competition which gives the students ownership and a sense of pride for their bottles. For each bottle that is purchased, the cost of a bottle donation and education materials to a student in Bali is covered. Each school participating in the program also receives a water stand so that the canteen can sell water refills to students instead of water in plastic packaging.

To date more than 100,000 plastic cups have been prevented from entering waste streams through the students dedicated use of their bottles. The program recently expanded, launching at four new schools in Nusa Lembongan. In 2017, more than 2,000 students and teachers are due to participate in the program and receive their bottles. 

You can help continue this program by donating here or buying a bottle.