REALISING ANOTHER WORLD
By Nikki Cooper
“African roots, mother, sea lover, teacher, designer and campaigner” is how her LinkedIn bio describes her; add to that inspiring, passionate, down-to-earth and buzzing with energy… as soon as we met Mel we knew we’d met the right person we’d been looking for to help us highlight the issue of waste left behind at festivals, in particular plastic waste.
Suffice to say Mel knows a thing or two about plastic packaging – she used to design it. Aside from running her own design company for many years, Mel has written and taught a BSc. degree in Sustainable Graphics and Packaging, achieved a Master’s degree in Sustainable Development and is a recipient of an Earth Champions “Change Agent” award. In 2010 she set up Raw Foundation in memory of her glorious son Rory (Raw), who died tragically in India in 2008. In 2014 Raw teamed up with Bristol based Kambe Events Ltd (a sustainable events consultancy) to produce the first ever “Plastic-Free Festival” guides for both Festival Organisers and Festival Goers. In 2016 she led an expedition, Raw in Africa: from Cairo to Cape Town to examine how plastics were impacting the continent and where was it coming from, even in the remotest areas (read more; Raw and Virgin). The results were shocking. In October 2018 she’s doing it again, but this time around South America and through the Amazon!
Despite her whirlwind schedule, we managed to catch up with Mel to ask her about Raw Foundation, festivals and her relentless campaign against plastic.
For those who don’t know, who are Raw Foundation and what do they do?
Raw’s main focus is campaigning against the plastic pollution problem the planet is facing right now. Our mission is to “educate, engage and empower people to identify and accelerate a shift towards sustainable consumption and production”. We focus on over-consumption and aim to make people aware of the hidden consequences of the everyday stuff they use, and nothing illustrates this better than plastic. It’s everywhere. It’s become an integral part of our throw-away lifestyle, but when you throw it away it doesn’t go “away”, it remains in the environment. It’s become one of the most serious environmental and human health problems facing us today.
Your Making Waves Campaign focuses on reducing plastic in the environment. How does Raw aim to do this?
By informing people about the true extent of the critical plastic pollution problem and importantly to offer hope and solutions; through campaigning, raising awareness and research. In 2013 we curated a series of events at the Create Centre in Bristol, and from this came our Plastic Free Festival guides in collaboration with Kambe Events and Shambala Festival. Our volunteers provide information and workshops on site at Shambala and man Water Refill Kiosks at Glastonbury to raise awareness and encourage people to opt for durable, reusable 100% stainless steel water bottles. In addition to this, we’ve worked with other organisations and universities offering support and guidance to student leaders managing campaigns, to help them find and put in place solutions.
When did you first become aware of the plastic problem?
I was always aware there was a problem. I’ve always had a problem with the amount of crap we produce. Even when I was designing packaging, I was concerned that most designers had no idea about the materials they were using. But my real focus kicked in when I decided to write a BSc. in Sustainable Graphics and Packaging; that really brought it all to the forefront as I was becoming more informed. During my Master’s in Sustainable Development at Exeter University I really focused on packaging and the whole system. As a result, I wrote a chapter ‘Materials Awareness’ for the Handbook of Sustainable Literacy in 2009. My big awakening was when I was sitting on my favourite beach in Turkey, Patara Beach. I must have taken photos of at least 100 flip-flops on the beach; all plastic, single ones… there’s always only one, just like socks! And Patara Beach is a UN conservation area, it’s a nesting site for turtles; it was at that stage I sat and wept and thought “what are we doing? this has to STOP, this has to stop now!” It was the flip-flops that made me think of our ‘plastic footprint’, and I remember planting my own bare foot into the sand next to it [a flip-flop]. It made me incandescent with anger, it really, really did. How dare we? That must have been 10 years ago. But actually I look back to when I was 18 and I used to sit on top of a hill, looking and worrying about it all then. So it’s been a growing feeling.
Many of the affected places are so far away, we in the West don’t see it. Do you feel it’s a case of out of sight out of mind?
Absolutely. But I think for me being born in Africa has played a huge part.
I think because of the wisdom of indigenous populations. Also, I remember reading an article on what a ‘tempered radical’ was and thinking “oh my gosh that’s me!”. It’s when you have one foot in either camp, i.e. one in our western over-consumption, and the other in Africa along with my heart, the land and its indigenous peoples. You’re then free to operate outside of it all. Although I am British, I’ve never felt completely British – if someone asked me now I’d say I was African. (Laughs) My mother always called me her ‘Rhodesian Rebel’, and it’s true! She said to me one day “if you’d been around in your grandmother’s generation you’d have been a suffragette” and I said absolutely no doubt! (laughs).
Do you still see that wisdom in Africa, or does it worry you that they may look at the West and want what we’ve got, which leans towards a consumer society?
No, I think it’s moved past that. I mean, obviously there are a lot of people that still think that, but in the developing nations no, I mean just look at China. China’s just banned all our plastic waste from Europe and the US for recycling, they’ve banned all our exported plastic. They don’t want our crap.
I think that a lot of these developing nations have woken up, because they know they haven’t got the resources to subscribe to Western levels of consumption, because the resources just aren’t there to do it with a rising population, and I think that innate wisdom is resurfacing. They haven’t forgotten what we have in the West. What I particularly like is that they still make the connections – for example, they focus on water, they really look at water as being precious because they have to trudge 10 kms to get it twice a day, but beyond that they see it as being sacred, and we’ve lost sight of that completely. Despite it being on tap we’ve all subscribed to buying plastic bottles of water in the West and we have no reason to be doing that at all. It’s been sold to us.
Many of us saw Blue Planet II and the devastating effects on our environment plastic is having, but what does my plastic waste here in the UK have to do with an albatross coughing up plastic in the Pacific?
OK, so 80% of waste that ends up in the ocean comes from the land. Most of it is either blown or washed there from the land. Appropriate, clean recycling and recovery systems are not keeping pace with the sheer quantity or mixture of plastic produced. An overwhelming 72% of plastic packaging is not recovered at all. 40% is landfilled and 32% leaks out of collection systems, leaching chemicals into surrounding habitats, freshwater and marine water systems. Therefore, if everything in the sea has come from the land, you don’t know whether or not it’s YOUR plastic bag, bottle top or straw that’s ended up in the ocean. Have you seen the video of the turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose? You don’t know as an individual that that’s not YOUR straw. This stuff, such as plastic bottle tops etc., has been tracked round the world by Captain Sir Charles Moore from Algalita Foundation, he’s literally modelled and tracked it; sampling, processing samples and tracking the oceans for micro-plastic debris, plastic waste and its routes through the oceans. Some of this stuff has taken 10-15 years to travel around the world. It gets trapped and transported by ocean currents known as Gyres [circulating ocean currents] around the world. So my plastic bottle top that maybe I lost on a beach whenever, could be the very plastic top that some albatross has picked up and fed to its young. It absolutely could be yours. So because of this all of us, every SINGLE one of us, has to take individual responsibility for all the single-use plastics we consume and throwaway.
So what actions can people take to help?
Identify the top 10 single-use plastics they use, and by that I mean anything that’s used one time only and then thrown away; disposable plastic bottles, bags, straws etc, and make a commitment to stop or refuse those items wherever you can. Make a ‘plastic pledge’.
Portobello Tents will be making a plastic pledge about plastic water bottles, but it can be hard to know where to start.
It can, but I suggest focusing on your top 3 most used items and take action on those first, and commit to using reusable, sustainable alternatives in their place.
We’ve collaborated with Raw Foundation to produce a stainless steel, reusable water bottle. Can you explain why stainless steel is the better option?
I looked at this about 4 years ago, the whole life cycle and process of producing bottles – hard plastic, aluminium and steel bottles – and analysed it. Now, if you look at the embodied energy [energy used to make it], aluminium and stainless steel are more energy intensive to make at the beginning, but as soon as you start reusing those bottles this figure drops off. When it comes to embodied carbon, stainless steel sits in in the middle, but the same reuse logic applies. I don’t advocate aluminium because it’s often spray-lined with plastic, which most probably contains toxins, and it dents more easily. When you look at the overall comparison, stainless steel comes out on top; it’s toxic-free, it’s high reuse, it’s durable, long lasting and safe. It may be more expensive initially but as you start reusing it – I mean how much does a plastic bottle of water cost, a quid, two quid, or more? At festivals I’ve had people coming up to me saying “oh your bottles are ten quid!” so my answer to them is, “How much did you pay for that single-use plastic bottle of water? How many of those will you buy this weekend?” So you see, our stainless steel bottles are simply the best option in every way.
What about bioplastics and compostables, what are your thoughts on them?
Well, use compostables if you must but for me compostable isn’t the answer as a huge amount of energy is still used to produce an item for one-time use. There’s big confusion about bioplastics. I advocate that we shouldn’t use them, because the only advantage is they’re not made of oil; they’re made of plant based materials, which is why people think they’re better. But more importantly they can have the same additives, the same toxic, harmful chemicals in them as oil based plastics, so when they break down they’re going to leach the same chemicals; and if you’re chopping down the rainforest to grow the plants in the first place [to make them] then that’s not great. It’s the same with oxo-degradable plastics, which the plastics industry are desperately trying to sell as a solution at the moment.
Raw have produced Festival guides for Festival and Event Organisers and Festival Goers, so what would be your top 3 tips for Festival Goers to reduce their plastic use at festivals?
1. Bring your own reusable water bottle or buy one on site.
2. Use a reusable cup, like Enviro-cup which is stainless steel, or an Eco-coffee cup.
3. Skip the straw. Just say no, but if you have to, use your own reusable one, stainless steel or bamboo.
Can I have 4? – Ask your festival or event to be a leader… and avoid glitter and wet wipes!
What top 3 tips do you have for Festival Organisers?
1. Ban those top three (water bottles, disposable coffee cups and straws) at least.
2. Provide free water points for bottle refills.
3. Provide awareness materials prior to and during the event.
Where can people find your Festival Guides?
Through our website and the Association of Independent Festival (AIF). Also, as part of a radical new collaborative campaign led by the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) and Raw Foundation, over 60 independent festivals have pledged to ban #singleuse #plastics by 2021 (read more here).
Festivals seem to be taking action on this issue, but what about the private, corporate event world, has Raw been approached by anyone here?
No, very few have approached me at all, and my call to them would be “How can Raw support them to be part of the solution and not the pollution?”
You’re planning an expedition to South America this year, what’s it for and how did it come about?
I’m planning to circumnavigate the whole of South America and the entire length of the Amazon. The reason I’m doing it is because 20% of the world’s fresh water comes from the Amazon, and nobody knows what’s happening there with regard to plastic pollution. I’ve even had indigenous populations tweeting me from the Amazon saying they’re really concerned; they’ve lived sustainably for years and plastics are creeping in and contaminating their water supply. So much so that they’re now having to buy water in plastic bottles, and that is a huge concern. I’m going to track the brands [of plastic waste] too. We’ll be looking at visible macro-plastics in a square metre every one hundred kilometres on either side of the road. We will also be taking the top 20cm of soil of each of those square metre quadrats to look at the micro-plastics, i.e. those we can’t see. In addition we will be doing beach transects and underwater transects; particularly looking at microfibres which are a growing concern.
What’s the concern with microfibres?
Microfibres come from everything from wet wipes to synthetic clothing and end up in water, including the water points where people access their water for drinking and so on. We’ll be testing these water points. This expedition will build on the research I obtained from Raw in Africa. However, this time I am going to record the key brands I find within my quadrats as well. Absolutely the worst offenders of the offending items I found [in Africa] were the big brands such as Coca-Cola, and their affiliated products. I see this as our spreading “Plastic Colonialism” from the West. I want to really investigate where these plastics are coming from. You know these developing nations keep being criticised for mismanaging their waste when actually who’s really mismanaging it? We’re just exporting the problem to them.
Is your hope that your research will help provide evidence to regulate the big corporations who produce this single-use plastic, and make them bear the burden of it?
Absolutely! We need to tax it. But really what we need is to be banning it, and that’s what I’m calling for. It doesn’t even make business sense to be throwing away valuable materials as fast as possible.
Some people will read this and think “well I recycle my plastic so I’m doing my bit”, what’s your response to that?
Recycling will never ever be the answer, because it will never be enough. Also there’s huge confusion about what you can recycle: the process itself is pretty dirty because it releases toxic emissions into the air and soil. What’s most important is that globally only about 2% of plastics are collected properly and turned into new bottles etc. So the amount we are recycling is tiny – it’ll never be enough. But what really concerns me about the concept of recycling is it doesn’t move the consumer beyond thinking throwaway is ok. Yes of course we should be recycling what we can because we’ve got to deal with what we’ve already got here, but recycling alone will never be the answer.
Want to make a #plasticpledge?
Let Portobello Tents help – head over to our shop and grab yourself a reusable Raw / Portobello Tents stainless steel water bottle. £4 from each bottle sold will be donated to Raw Foundation so you’ll be helping their mission too, or, how about one of our reusable, Eco-coffee cups in one of our cool brand colours?
If you would like to make a donation to Raw Foundation you can do this through their Just Giving page.
For further information on plastic pollution in the ocean.
For further information on Raw Foundation.