Environment

‘Real wake up call’: Two activists who helped stir anti-plastics wave

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That Australia is on the verge of a near-national ban on thin, single-use plastic shopping bags owes much to the tenacity of campaigners such as Rebecca Prince-Ruiz and Jon Dee.

Dismayed by a month's amount of garbage churned out by one suburb, Ms Prince-Ruiz, an adult educator in local government, decided to tap several workmates to launch Plastic Free July in 2011.

Rebecca Prince-Ruiz, founder of Perth-based Plastics Free July, an organisation signing people from around the world.

Photo: Supplied

From 40 participants in year one, the campaign to cut single-use plastics had swollen to 2 million – half in Australia – in 159 nations last year. Another half million are expected to join this month's effort.

The founder attributes the success to people realising "small daily steps" can add up to significant outcomes. "We're about what people can do – we focus on the positive and the solutions".

The "choose to refuse" is aimed at offering alternatives to plastics that turn up in takeaway cups, utensils and, of course, shopping bags. Recycling is urged for plastic that can't be avoided (including the plastic film your newspaper may have arrived in).

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Of the 9 billion or so tonnes of plastics ever produced, only 9 per cent has ever been recycled, and of that only 10 per cent has been recycled a second time. "I find it horrifying," Ms Prince-Ruiz says.

Jon Dee, an environmental activist, advises governments and corporations on how to do more with less – especially plastics.

Photo: Dean Sewell

'So angry'

In Mr Dee's case, coaxing positive environmental action had been his life for three decades.

It took a 2012 trip to Lord Howe Island – 600 kilometres off the NSW coast – to prompt "a real wake-up call" to target plastics.

In an otherwise pristine rainforest, the founder of the DoSomething Foundation spied tiny mounds of plastic on the forest floor – detritus left after passing through chicks' bodies.

"It made me so angry," Mr Dee says. "We are literally trashing our environment."

Mr Dee has since worked closely with several states on their bag bans – including NSW – and helping to nudge corporation and consumer behaviour towards conserving resources and recycling.

Single-use plastic bags are accumulating in our environment at the rate of millions per year.

Photo: James Alcock

'Our doors blown open'

Science is getting a better grip on what plastic is doing in the oceans, such as forming five huge rubbish gyres, including the Great Pacific Garbage Path between Hawaii and California.

Not only do animals get entangled in plastic, some such as turtles mistake them for jellyfish prey. Plastics also disintegrate in micro- or nano-sized fragments, some of which get injested along the foodchain.

"Plastics dont break down, they break up," Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist at the University of Tasmania, says.

With about 10,000 man-made chemicals in play, "science cant keep pace", Ms Lavers said.

Research is also targeting the chemicals the plastics themselves attract, and what happens when they get into the bloodstream of animals large and small, including humans.

"Well have our eyes opened and our doors blown open as we learn more and more," she says.

Both Ms Prince-Ruis and Mr Dee attribute programs such as the ABCs War on Waste and the BBCs Blue Planet for boosting support to curb bags and other plastics, such as drinking straws.

"I'm really excited," Ms Prince-Ruis said. The anti-plastics movement "is much more mainstream, it's not just a fringe".

Peter Hannam

Peter Hannam is Environment Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. He covers broad environmental issues ranging from climate change to renewable energy for Fairfax Media.

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