Plastic Free July has come to an end. Our friends at The Ibiza Food Festival interviewed author of ‘How to Give Up Plastic: A Guide to Changing the World, One Plastic Bottle at a Time’ Will McCallum, Head of Oceans for Greenpeace UK. They interviewed the author asking for tips on how to reduce plastic in our lives.
You have been involved with political movements through Greenpeace for many years and now you are Head of Oceans, how did you first get into environmental activism and what inspired you?
I grew up in Buenos Aires and as a child I spent a lot of time going out of the city doing camping and other outdoor activities in the nature. Then, when I went to the University I got involved with volunteering around environmental issues and I continued it after my studies. Finally, a job came up in Greenpeace and I thought it would be a great way to match the policy work that I’ve done before with something that I really care about which is environment.
What are the main priorities right now in terms of protecting our environment?
Well, I think different people hold different opinions. The two big ones for me are climate change and loss of biodiversity. Those two issues should really be given priority and plastic is involved in both of these. I think plastic as an issue is interesting because obviously it contributes to loss of biodiversity.
Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals die every year from entanglement. Bird populations that are already suffering from a climate change are now having plastic in their guts and we still don’t know what the long-term impact of plastic in the food chain is going to be. So working on plastic directly addresses one of those priorities.
On the climate side, I think plastic is interesting because it forces us to look at how much we are consuming and that simply cannot continue at the current trajectory. We have to look at making things more durable and more efficient moving away from single use as the best model which this has strong connotations with the climate stuff around the energy and switching to renewable.
When did you decide to fight against plastic and what was your main motivation?
I have a very strong plastics memory that I didn’t really cover in the book, but I remember it was at the time when I was living in Iran. Some friends of mine strongly advised me to go to the Caspian Sea to enjoy the beach. I remember going down to the beach and it’s just been absolutely covered in plastic and not somewhere where you would want to relax. So since then, the idea that plastic is ruining landscapes was already in my mind. When I became Head of Oceans I wanted to start a new and exciting campaign that people openly cared about. We worked a lot on fisheries which is very hard to motivate people. Although it is a very important campaign, it is less interesting and exciting. I really wanted to find a campaign that would inspire people to think about the environment. I mentioned in the book that the defining moment that really made it happen was when Obama banned microbeads. That time I realised we could do that in UK quite easily.
In your recent book “How to Give Up Plastic” you’ve been asking people to describe the worst example of plastic pollution they have seen. For you personally, what it the worst example of plastic pollution you have ever seen?
I’ve seen endless pictures and lots of terrible examples but in terms of what I have seen personally, I was camping on an inhabited island called Pabbay in Outer Hebrides. No one has lived there since the 1920s. It’s many kilometres from the closest village and the beach had plastic underneath the sand, fishing lines and plastic bottle tops everywhere. It was just a reminder that we are creating a world that everywhere is touched by plastic.
We have been trying to support Plastic Free July, it’s a real eye opener to see how difficult it is to give up plastic! What’s the best solution to reduce plastic you have come across?
Well, I think the best solution remains reducing it. When you look at plastic bottles in particular, the numbers are mind blowing. I forget the exact number but about 500 billion plastic bottles are being produced every year which is absolutely mad! One company Coca Cola alone produces 120 billions. So having water fountains and access to safe drinking water has got to be a big part of reducing plastic. We have had our volunteers giving out free paper bags that are made up of 100% recyclable material. But generally bottles continue to annoy me.
Plastic is such a cheap commodity which is affordable in some underdeveloped areas such as in Asia and Africa. It seems to be much easier for Western society to find alternatives or to reduce use of plastic. How can we support less developed countries and how can we stop them using so much plastic?
There are a couple of things. One is that a lot of these countries have not yet made the full move to single use plastic. These are places like Latin America and much of Africa. For example they still are using refillable glass bottles or not packaging their food in plastic. Really one of the best ways we can support is to make sure that the companies that are based in Europe like Unilever, Nestle, Danone are not pushing plastic on these places and that they don’t do the move that we have made on the West. If you look somewhere like the Philippines, their plastic problem is so bad, but it’s the companies from here that have created single use products that are selling in there. So that’s one way we can all support any resistance to that change as much as we can.
I think another thing people forget is that a lot of these places were a lot quicker to ban plastic bags than many countries in Europe. Bangladesh was the first country to ban single use plastic bags in 2002, Morocco has banned it around 8 years ago, Kenya this year. Supporting these efforts means making these governments feel reward for the change they made so they are more likely to introduce future steps. For me the best thing we can do from the West is forcing those companies to stop selling products that cannot be recycled.
We will be launching The Ibiza Food Festival and this aims to be a plastic free festival. There is a substantial usage of plastic for food packaging currently, is there much movement from the United Nations to support legislation to reduce plastic within the food industry?
There is movement from the United Nations. In December last year 193 countries signed a plastics charter. They have set up a group to start working on a plastics treaty or some kind of a plastics agreement. The problem is that it will take around 10 years because that’s the time things take for the UN. I spoke with the UN environment program Head of Oceans and she said it could never take less time than 5 years. So I think really our focus right now in terms of international efforts is working on the companies that span borders. We can work much quicker that way. What we would ask them from a Greenpeace perspective is by the end of 2019 to no longer sell any product that cannot be recycled or is not widely recyclable. Because sometimes there are products that are technically recyclable, but actually in practice the infrastructure can’t support it. So I think in the short term, that’s really the focus because I think it’s where the biggest win can be.
What advice you can give to the movements like Plastic Free Ibiza that have just started their actions against plastic on a local level?
I think partly it is sharing best practice so creating the campaign to create a rise to the top. Wherever you see good practice from a cafe or a shop or any other business put it on the social media, put it through your networks and make sure that they feel the reward for having behaved in a good way. And then going to the other companies and asking them to step up and meet what the other companies delivered.
I think it’s important to show the businesses that they start to benefit from doing the right thing. And don’t forget the press. I think also not to get depressed by the monumental task, have some fun with it! Because it can be very depressing when you look at the statistics or when you even just go to your beach. Plastic is a really fun campaign because people automatically care about it. We’re not having to go out there and explain why is it important, people already understand. This gives so much more space to think about creative tactics and how we can raise awareness. Things like beach cleans or mass litter pick ups are great ways to get people involved and get them collectively excited. So having some fun with organising campaigns, I think is very important with any environmental campaign.
There have been a number of innovations around recycling plastic for other purposes, what has been the best innovation you have found and what does it mean to the world?
The best way would be that we are not having to recycle any because we are not producing that much. But I suppose the most exciting one that I found is Net-Works which is a group of companies that make carpet tiles. Carpets are an unlikely source of plastic pollution, a lot of people don’t realise that most of the industrial carpeting in offices and even within houses are made of plastic. When it gets thrown away, that’s it.
Another big source of plastic waste is fishing waste. We estimate about 10% of all the plastic in the ocean comes from the discarded fishing nets. And these companies have come together where they are encouraging fishermen in Philippines, Bangladesh and Pakistan to recycle the old fishing nets and turn them into carpets. It’s a fantastic way because it’s about the businesses linking with the local communities. They are gaining benefit for a material which is valuable and didn’t know what they could do with them afterwards, so they leaving them on the beach. Now they are able to make an income from it and this company has managed to secure a sustainable source of material. That for me is a very nice example of recycling that is benefitting, not just big businesses, but also local communities.
Which country do you believe does the best job in terms of plastic reduction and what are their actions?
I think generally Germany is very good. Germany’s waste infrastructure is much more advanced than many places. For example with bottles, they capture more than 95% of the plastic bottles for recycling which is huge. But really, I don’t think any country is doing that well. I think to call anyone a champion right now we have to be pushing much much harder. Even Germany is exporting lots of their plastic waste elsewhere in the world, they are burning some of it. The first country to introduce legislation to reduce plastic they can have their title ‘best’.
The Oceans are the lifeblood of the world, what are the three main things that are under-publicised in your eyes?
More than 3 billion people depend on the ocean as the primary food source. That is mind blowing when you think about it. Meaning nearly half the world depend upon the oceans. So without healthy oceans that is half the world that might go hungry. That for me is something that I constantly think about. What is good for the oceans is good for people and making that link over and over and over again. The other one is how little we understand the oceans. We have barely seen any of the seabed, proportionately. We don’t know what lives there. There are thousands of undiscovered species, undiscovered habitat and yet we continue to take and take and take without really thinking about what happens there. The third one, anytime we find the new species of fish, there are so many weird and amazing creatures in the ocean that whenever I’m working on the campaign there is a constant source of new. I think people don’t realise that this is like the cutting edge of science, constantly finding out how it all works and how it all comes together.