Taking on plastic: from fashion shows to expeditions

Hey, it’s great to meet you. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m Phoebe, a British 18-year-old, currently on a gap year before I head to university at the end of 2020 to read Geography. I have grown up in a Christian family and as a result of a faith wobble over the past few years, I am back, knowing God exists, and knowing I want to follow God’s plans for me as, turns out, they are the best and I can do nothing of significance without Him! Fingers crossed, this summer I am going to get baptised.

How has faith impacted the way you think about the environment and justice?

I didn’t link the two right from the beginning. The environment was something I became more interested in during year 11 and it was something I was pursuing out of my own interest that finally captured me without boredom setting in. At the same time, my faith was compartmentalized in a separate part of my brain. At the beginning of sixth form, as my faith began to dip when I decided I wanted to make it my own, I began to desire to know more about what Christianity is – what are the building blocks and the evidence? I went on an Alpha course and afterwards started up a Bible study, using the book ‘God’s Big Picture’ by Vaughan Roberts. Throughout this time, I re-explored Genesis in more detail. God made the world and ‘it was good.’

He is such a creative God and he made this beautiful, intricate planet. This is how he wanted it to be. This was before we screwed it up a bit… But this starting image is still how he wants it to be. Suddenly, this was a link pulling my faith together with my interest in the environment. God doesn’t want it to be this way: filled with plastic, damaged. He wants it restored and we can be his hands and feet to begin making this happen. He wants to use us to start to bring his kingdom on this earth. He will restore it all in the end, and we must continue to pray ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ On the other hand, this shouldn’t make us idle, as we live in a time of the kingdom that is ‘now and not yet’.

Before you left school, you set up an Environmental Committee. Could you tell us what it is and why you started it in the first place?

Of course. The simple answer is that there wasn’t an Environmental Committee, so we formed one! I had just moved back to my original school after a break and was back with friends who were also keen to see the school do more for the environment. Two inspiring geography teachers had entered our class into the InterClimate Network’s Climate Summit spurring us to make the changes we wanted to see, such as reducing the school’s plastic and food waste. We wanted this impact to be sustainable, so we needed more people to help us, involving younger year groups who would continue the work after we left the school. Hence the formation of the committee. In order to highlight the importance of this work, we added an Environment and Resources Officer to the student leadership roles, someone who would lead the committee. The committee grew in its second year from 15 members to 30 regular attendees, making it the biggest committee in the school.

What were some of the highlights of running the committee, and what were some of the challenges you had to overcome?

My highlight was the sustainable fashion show that I organised. It was completely made up of voluntary models and designers. Although it was a last-minute decision, with the risk that noone would get involved, we saw models sign up from every year group in the school. The workshops to make the garments from second hand clothes were full, and the seating was full and overflowing with an audience of over 200 across the two shows. It was manic at the time, but it was amazing to see all the year groups voluntarily do something altogether! It became a community builder and something that got the message out about the impacts our clothes have on the environment. 

One challenge I found with starting up the committee was that I had never been a leader before. So, it was a steep learning curve – how do you get everyone to contribute when you have such a mix of personalities and ages? How do you organise so many people yet let them make decisions too? How do you make the decisions about the committee’s use of time? For me however, the main thing was getting it started, and it was such a joy to know that the follow-on leaders could learn from our good things and bad things and that they have seen the committee get bigger and better!

You later went on to create a website that helps people find reusable alternatives to plastic products. What drove you to make it?

I had signed up to do an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) alongside my A-Levels. This is a self-motivated research project that can materialize as a report or a product. At the same time, I went to the Bristol International Development Conference where I heard Michelle Cassar, the Creative Director at City to Sea, give a talk about plastic. Afterwards I thought to myself – all the companies needed to provide the plastic-free alternatives are there, but finding them can be a time-consuming task. So, what if it was made easier by having them all in one place? In comes the idea for a website with links to a variety of plastic-free companies and projects. This became my EPQ and resulted in the evolution of SEACHANGE.

When did you first realise plastic was such a huge problem.

Good question! I can’t pinpoint it, but I must have been aware of it during my GCSEs as I made a dress from recycled plastics in Art to raise awareness of the issue. During my first year of A-levels in 2017, David Attenborough highlighted the issue in Blue Planet 2, and the plastic I had been seeing on our British beaches my whole life acquired a new significance.

It’s been a difficult time with the coronavirus pandemic, but in April you were meant to be part of an all-female expedition around the world. Could you tell us more about it and what the purpose of the trip is? Will you still be doing it at a later date?

Yes, I was so thrilled to have received the opportunity to join a guest crew team of 10 other women on a boat belonging to eXXpedition. This organisation is taking a total of 300 women around the world to research plastic pollution in the sea, air and on land, talking to communities as they go about the issue and the solutions and inspiring the women on board to generate new ideas to solve the crisis at the source on land. I was due to be joining the boat this April in the Cook Islands, Pacific Ocean, and sailing to the Kingdom of Tonga. Unfortunately, this has been postponed until next year, but I seriously hope to join them in 2021. 

When I first heard about eXXpedition, I didn’t consider applying to join them. Towards the end of my A-Levels I changed my mind and I was so pleased (and shocked!) to find that after the application, interview and long wait, I had been offered a place to join them as their youngest crew member (as of yet)! It was a dream to get this opportunity and to have the chance to meet like-minded, inspiring women on the frontline of plastic pollution research. I felt this was very much a God-given opportunity, as I have no idea how I would have got it otherwise, much the same as having the opportunity to set up a committee, organise the fashion show and gain some other experiences in the environmental sector. 

You’ve already done so many great things to use your voice for justice. What tips would you give to other young people, hoping to do the same thing?

Quite honestly, I feel a bit of a fraud when writing these things and I think a lot of us can feel like this when thinking about these bigger issues – sometimes this can result in an ‘I can’t make a big enough difference to matter so better not to think about it at all’ attitude. I think it is dangerous if we all think like this. The best thing is that the weight of these issues aren’t just on your shoulders because God is in control and we have this incredible hope that one day all these issues will be put completely right! In the meantime, whilst we are on this earth, we can start the restoration of how God wants this planet to be. Here are some tips:

1. Pray. There’s a great saying, ‘Pray like it all depends on God, but work like it all depends on you.’ Pray for God to show you how He wants to use you for this issue or whether He has is putting another issue on your heart that He wants you to focus your efforts on. Pray that He would open up doors to opportunities that would teach you what he wants you to learn and show you what He wants you to do.

2. Wash out your plastic recycling before putting it into the bins. This means that it can actually be recycled, reducing the amount of new plastic that needs to be made. If we can create more of a circular economy, we can reduce the amount of resources we are taking from the earth.

3. Choose one product to swap out for a plastic free product. It’s becoming increasingly easy to find a source for plastic free items, whether that’s online for example at The Plastic Free Shop or in your area. We have just had two plastic free shops set up in our one town, so go looking!

Even though it can seem insignificantly small, if you can reduce your plastic that’s a little bit less that enters the ocean or pollutes the rivers and land that some communities rely on for water, food and living space. 

If you wanted to take this further, I would suggest that you take any opportunities you have to join groups of like-minded people. You may have to search for these groups, but once you start looking into these opportunities you can find so much out there. For example, is there a local group near you that organises litter picks, or a plastic-fighting organisation where you could get some experience working with the team, or even a school group, such as an environmental committee? Perhaps if this committee doesn’t already exist, you could set one up. Just look for somewhere to start bouncing ideas off other people. 

Obviously, life has changed quite a bit in the last few months. Have you been able to continue your environmental work at home and how are you finding it?

Tricky. Our local fruit and vegetable shop has recently closed, so now we buy most of these products wrapped in plastic from the supermarket, apart from the vegetable box we get withloose veg most of the time. As my original plans to be fighting plastic in the Pacific Ocean have had to be postponed, it has felt like quite a backwards fall when I thought I was getting to an exhilarating climb. It has been difficult being back at work on a meat and fish counter watching the sickening amounts of plastic used. Instead of my original plans to be pulling plastic out of the ocean, I feel I’m now a big part of the problem. 

On the other hand, my eXXpedition team have a group chat and it’s been encouraging and inspiring to hear some of the things they are up to. As a result, I have made a sign for the beach near me which reads: ‘Take your rubbish. Take 3 for the sea’. Another team member has put these signs up all along the beaches on the Mid North Coast of Australia. 

Furthermore, as a family we are now making more trips to our local plastic-free shop, due to the shortage of flour. We are relying more heavily on their products as it’s impossible to get them elsewhere! This has been a great way to get us to visit their store more often and hopefully this will continue after lockdown is over. 

What are some of your top tips for how we can still make a difference while at home?

Have a beach near you? How about diverting your walk to go past your beach; take a bag and some gloves and do a 5-minute litter pick. You might also like to make a ‘Take your rubbish. Take 3 for the sea’ sign, to encourage others to do the same as they walk past. In fact, you don’t need a beach to do this! If these signs started to pop up in cities, towns and countryside encouraging people to pick up a couple of pieces of litter and dispose of them correctly, this would reduce the amount of plastic that could find its way to the sea or beyond. 

If you have some extra time on your hands, you could take a different approach and start to contact some of the companies you use regularly, such as supermarkets or clothes shops, and send them an email to ask how much plastic packing they generate in a year. This might prompt them to think about how much of a negative impact this might be having globally. You could add some facts and figures or a little bit of information about what kind of negative effects their plastic is having on the environment and people across the world. It’s even a great opportunity to point out some companies who are doing it differently, for example, using alternative packaging like our plastic free-shops.

Lastly, you could begin to use this time to look up groups you might be interested in joining post lockdown, or join some seminars (for example, look out for Ellen MacArthur Foundation Young Adult Webinars on their Learning Page), or join an online course (FutureLearn) to start widening your view. You could also check out other WE ARE articles like ‘How to make the most of being online in lockdown’, ‘Saving the planet one crisp packet at a time’  or get stuck into Tearfund’s detailed ‘No time to Waste’  report on the plastic pollution issue.

Thanks for you time Pheobe, it was great to meet you!

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