It’s been ten years since the very first Plastic Free July (PFJ) campaign began in Perth. To celebrate the anniversary, PFJ founder, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, has co-written a book about the movement that became a global phenomenon. Nicole Lutze spoke with Rebecca about the campaign, the book and our society’s problem with waste.
LIVE FOR LESS: Is plastic pollution a separate issue to climate change?
REBECCA: I don’t think it is. Plastic, like any other manufactured product, has a carbon footprint. We use resources to extract the raw materials, transport those materials and then manufacture the plastic. The finished product is shipped to a consumer, and we then must dispose of the waste. If someone aims to reduce their plastic waste, they will consequently reduce their carbon footprint.
Another thing many people don’t realise is that plastics are made from fossil fuels. Because people are shifting to renewables, oil companies are having to find ways to use the waste from the petroleum industry, so plastic production is actually increasing, and carbon emissions from plastic are expected to triple by 2050. Plastic production is entirely out of sync with demand. They just make more plastic, and manufacturers basically invent new products to use that material.
“I see plastic pollution as a gateway issue to the problem of waste, and that waste issue is linked to the broader climate emergency we are facing.”
How do you think we can minimise waste as a society?
I believe change needs to start with ourselves. People need to stop shopping as a recreational pursuit and instead buy what they need. We need to vote with our dollar, support Australian farmers and local growers and refuse unnecessary single-use plastics and packaging. We need to take responsibility for our consumer choices and behaviours. Because even if we have the most eco-friendly packaging, but we still waste 40% of the food that’s grown in this country, we continue to have a problem.
Of course, we also need systems to change, businesses to become more responsible, and governments to set the frameworks and policies, so we use plastic in a circular fashion instead of linear. We need all that to happen. But people need to reduce their consumption and be less wasteful, and that change begins with individual action.
What motivates people’s behaviours, and how can we use that to encourage change?
For PFJ I worked very closely with a behavioural economist, and he explained you could not predict what motivates people’s behaviour. We are all driven by different things. When we have tested messaging for PFJ, we found this to be true. That’s why the tagline on our posters is: avoid landfill waste, reduce your eco-footprint and protect the ocean; because different prompts trigger different people.
Are you concerned with how coronavirus will impact this PFJ?
Yes and no. What I have observed over recent months has given me great hope. I’ve seen people can make changes very quickly in society for the right reasons. And I’ve also noticed that as people have spent more time at home, working and homeschooling their kids, they learned more skills. Stores have run out of flour and sugar, and nurseries sold out of vegetable and herb seedlings. People are becoming more resourceful, a bit more thrifty and learning to make things from scratch. These actions provide genuine benefits.
Of course, it is concerning people can’t use their reusables in restaurants and cafes, but human health is paramount. If your local cafe isn’t accepting your reusable cup, maybe you can dine in, or learn to brew coffee at home? Or if you absolutely have to have a takeaway drink, don’t use a lid. There are still things we can do as a society, and some good lessons learned along the way.
How do you stay positive when the news cycle always seems to be negative?
I’m lucky to hear stories of positive change daily, and those stories come from people, businesses and governments. Those stories give me lots of hope.
What have you learned about other people from PFJ?
I am not alone, and many people in the world are also concerned about this problem. I also learned it’s essential to acknowledge that just because people don’t act in the same way that I do, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about this issue. And we shouldn’t judge.
What has been the hardest thing about PFJ?
It has been hard to help people understand the reason for the campaign and the bigger problem with plastic pollution. The best explanation I can give is: if you come home and your kitchen floor is flooded because you left the tap on and the plug in, your first reaction isn’t to grab the mop. Your first reaction is to turn off the tap. Cleanups are great, and recycling is important, but we really have to turn this problem off at the tap and stop it at the source. And that’s very challenging because it’s easy to feel good about cleanups and recycling. The public wants their government and councils to recycle. Reducing it and turning off the tap is a lot more complicated, and no one wants to pay for that change.
“People need to reduce their consumption and be less wasteful, and that change begins with individual action.”
What are your hopes for the future?
That PFJ will continue to grow and make its way into a mainstream audience.
I don’t think we will ever have a world without plastic, but my dream would be to have a world that is healthy, in every sense of the word, with healthy communities living in a clean environment.
What would you tell anyone afraid, overwhelmed or thinks it’s all too hard to do PFJ?
I would say, join the challenge. Sign up and choose just one thing. This isn’t a challenge for those few people who can do everything. If it were, I wouldn’t be doing it because I’m far from perfect. Signing up will allow you to be part of a movement, and you will receive resources and ideas and realise you are not alone. Over the last ten years, I have seen the difference it makes when lots of people make small changes. We can make a collective difference together.
Join Plastic Free July
If you want to find out more about Plastic Free July, or join the movement and give up single-use plastics for a month, head to their website. And check out our ditching plastic template to help you ditch plastic from your life.