Walk me through your journey into rubbish and waste and how you got to where you are today. Where did it start?
When I was 10 years old on holiday in Greece with my mum I trod on a broken beer bottle in the sea. It went into the middle of my left foot. I was unable to walk properly for quite some time and it took until I was 21years old to be able to run properly. My mum and I had always collected up the litter left by others around us on the beach or in the park. I enjoyed the beach combing immensely, as back in the 70s you’d find starfish, sea horses and all sorts of other wonderful creatures from the sea. There was born my fascination with the sea and the seemingly twisted relationship that humans have with their ‘waste’ products. I couldn’t comprehend why we could arrange for the milkman to collect his bottles, but all the others ended up in landfill. The system it seemed was defunct.
What does the ocean mean to you?
The ocean is the cradle of all life on Earth, its memory and part of its breathing apparatus. It cleanses and revives the air we breath as it does the mind & soul.
What do you think are the common lies, misconceptions or myths surrounding ‘rubbish’?
That there is an ‘away’ you can throw it to, that landfill is acceptable, that it isn’t ‘our problem’ because ‘we didn’t make it’, that high consumption/waste levels are indicators of a healthy economy.
What book/books and/or film/films have influenced you the most and why?
The section on the Bowerbird, “the artist-architects of the avian world” in The Courtship of Birds (Hilda Simon 1977) captured my imagination and forged my resolution to never trust any grown-up that insisted that animals do not feel pain or understand beauty.
GAIA New Look at Life on Earth (James Lovelock 1979) verbalised the theory that the Earth is not an unintelligent ‘machine like’ object full of resources to plunder and make profit on at will, but a delicate symbiotic heavenly body that has a remarkable aptitude for producing and nurturing a profusion of life forms that commands respect.
A Dictionary of Green Ideas (John Button 1988) lists the ‘Vocabulary for a sane and sustainable future’ taking the concept of ‘environmentally destructive’ activity in its widest sense to include everything that operates to laden the variety, sparkle and joy of life on Earth.
Brazil by Terry Gilliam because it’s dystopian landscape breathed a breath of fresh truth that through the flashy red sports car yuppie hype of 1985.
Koyaanisqatsi – Life Out of Balance (Godfrey Reggio 1982) expanded my mind, my musical spectrum and my eating habits forever.
What have you bought recently that cost under £50 and has made the biggest impact in your life or to your cause?
The Ocean Cleanup sweatshirt (www.theoceancleanup.com) which gave funds to a project that I helped crowd-fund in 2013 that develops advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic.
What hurdles have you overcome in your waste journey, how did you overcome them and what did you learn?
Believing that introducing a ‘waste to energy’ system for Brighton & Hove would play a powerful positive role in bringing waste production under control. It is still way better than landfill, so we don’t literally drown in our own rubbish, but it propagates the concept that high consumption is ‘OK’ because we can make heat and power from the waste we produce.
The German system of weighing people’s un-recyclable waste and charging by them by the gram is a much better deterrent.
If you could make a poster that would reach millions and millions of people, including policy makers and educators what would it show or what would it say?
It would show one of the dead Albatross chicks from the Midway Islands north of Hawaii with plastic lighters, bottle tops and other plastics in its bloated stomach. It would say ‘We did this…and now we need to clean it up!
Join @TheOceanCleanup on its mission to remove plastic from the world’s oceans’
There are a lot of people out there who want to do something /want to make a difference. What have you learnt to be the key ingredients to a successful grass roots project, what advice would you give to someone starting and what resources would you recommend.
Ingredients (two key ingredients): Don’t judge. We are not the plastic police! Keep it short and sweet. Nobody likes to be lectured.
Advice (one if there is one that stands out): Lead by example and make it fun.
Resources (one or two): Facebook page and a pasting table
Since Blue Planet, many people are more aware of the plastics issue, it is great to see the press focus on this. Most of this is the reduction of single use avoidable plastic. Apart from that, what would be your three key pieces of advice / simple actions that people can make (be it general public, business, educators whoever)
1: Think Before You Flush – There are only 4 things that should go down the loo and they all begin with ‘P’
2: Make all your ethical decisions in the shop – never underestimate the power of your purse or your voice in the ear of the manager
3: Share the great alternatives you find – I spent years giving people fish-friendly washing up liquid and dishwasher tablets, wooden washing up & veg brushes, bamboo toothbrushes, cotton buds with cardboard sticks etc. as presents without a lecture. People may not have time/inclination to find out where to get these things from so share the knowledge you have gained and make it easy for people to change their purchasing habits.
What are bad recommendations that you hear in your area of expertise?
Use bioplastics or biodegradable plastics instead
What would you say to someone who thinks it is too late, the problem is too big, or that their actions won’t make a difference?
It is never too late. Imagine if the world leaders had thought that about the hole in the ozone layer. Your silence is your consent.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the problem, or lose focus temporarily? What do you do to bring it back?
Yes, when I was at the EU parliamentary meeting to announce that plastic was finally put on the agenda there was a report that mussels had been found to have plastic in their gut and another to say that microfibres were not being filtered out from washing machines.
It took me a few days to process this and get back off the floor. Sometimes I get sick of being the party pooper and I just didn’t know how I was going to break this news to my community. I felt really sad, but knew that I couldn’t sit on it. Even though I knew I was going to make people sad the truth is still my honour.
Recently Sally May told me that locally caught Brighton breem have plastic in their stomachs, and I felt shock at the thought that Brighton fish restaurants have to gut out the plastics and then serve the fish to my local community. I don’t know why I was shocked. I know so much about the plastic crisis and how bad the problem is, but there was something so horribly local and personal about the news that it upset me.
What is your favourite fun fact about the ocean?
That it can heal our mental and physical wounds
What is an unusual situation you have found yourself in as a result of the work you do?
I had to defend the position of Seas At Risk Federation on offshore wind farm EIAs with the UK Environment Secretary Michael Mecher’s private secretary whilst half naked in a spa in Bergen, Norway during the North Sea Ministerial Conference.
Find out more about Atlanta and her various projects by listening to her podcast episode.