Stop Plastic Pollution at its Source | A Q&A with Environmentalist Natalie Fee

17 September 2019

Inspiring others how they alone can change the world, and together how we can change it faster, Natalie Fee is on a mission to teach everyone about the environmental issues we are facing today. Natalie started her non-profit organisation City to Sea in 2015, and so far has prevented thousands of tonnes of plastic at source every year from reaching our oceans.

We caught up with her to find out more about her fight on plastic pollution, what some of the biggest issue are that we are facing and get some top tips on how we can help the environment!

The fight on plastic pollution has hit headlines around the world, what else needs to be done to remove plastic and rubbish from the world’s oceans?

There’s a useful analogy we use at my organisation, City to Sea, which is that there’s no point mopping up if you haven’t turned off the tap. So the most important thing we can do, as individuals, businesses and at government level is to stop plastic pollution at source. That means stopping using it in as many ways as you can – replacing single-use water bottles for water fountains and taps, disposable coffee cups for reusable ones – ideally eliminating as much single-use plastic from your life, office and business operations as you can. Whilst recycling plays a part in the solution to plastic pollution, refusing and reusing has to come first.

We’re fortunate that in the UK at least, awareness levels are riding high and studies show 85% of the British public want to do something about plastic pollution. Which is great! But changing behaviour isn’t so simple – our love of convenience often overrules our desire to use less plastic. Other things that really help, which need to come from government, are a mix of bans, taxes and deposit schemes. As we saw with the 5p bag charge – government decisions have the power to bring about mass change.

You founded the City to Sea non-profit in 2015, what was the inspiration behind starting this organisation?

I fell in love with an Albatross! Over the internet! In 2014 I was living in Bristol, I didn’t swim, sail or surf. And I'm not a marine biologist or scientist or explorer and I rarely visited the coastline. But around five years ago, I came across the trailer for a film called 'Albatross' by an artist called Chris Jordan. And it changed my life. I decided to do whatever I could to stop the suffering being inflicted on marine wildlife as a result of plastic pollution.

So I didn't set out to be an environmental campaigner. I had no idea when I started campaigning on my own with a crowdfunding campaign for a music video in 2014 ago that I'd end up leading a team of 31 awesome staff, running award-winning campaigns and stopping hundreds of tonnes of plastic from being produced, each year.

Your Refill campaign is now Europe's biggest drinking water campaign, can you tell us a little bit about it and how retailers, governments and transport hubs are now supporting it?

Refill is essentially about finding free water refills on the go, wherever you go. So if you have a reusable bottle on you, you won’t ever have to buy bottled water again. I just thought it was crazy that we’re constantly surrounded by taps – even on the high street – yet we felt uncomfortable asking for a free refill. So we set about to change that, by connecting people to taps and fountains in their community or on their high street by signing up shops and cafes to display a blue sticker in the window, and register on our free Refill app.

There are now over 25,000 places to refill for free on the app, powered by over 250 local community schemes, and as of the end of August 2019 we’ve had over 250,000 people download it. And we don’t only work with coffee chains and cafes, but heaps of independent retailers too, as well as train stations and airports – who’ve been installing dozens of fountains to make refilling on the go even easier. In terms of impact, Refill is on track to have stopped over 100 MILLION plastic bottles at source by the end of this year.

Your fight to protect and restore what's left of the world's wildlife is inspiring, what are some of the biggest and most disturbing issues we are facing?

Aside from plastic, I won’t beat around the bush – it’s pretty bleak at the moment. (I think the next question is more solutions-focused so bear with me!) We’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, having lost half the world’s wildlife in my lifetime. We’re losing vast amounts of forests, soil and species and severely compromising our future – the climate crisis, coupled with the growing demand on resources has got us teetering dangerously close to an edge that, if fallen off, could mean game over for life on earth as we know it. So it’s an exciting time to be alive! The choices we make now are some of the most important the human race has ever had to make.

You've recently published a book 'How to Save the World for Free', what are some of the ways we can help save the world?

I lay out hundreds of solutions in the book, from what you eat to how you travel to who you vote for. But I’d say initially to get the basics covered.

Make sure your (and your office’s) energy is powered on 100% renewable energy. (And check the fuel mix disclosure of your supplier – lots of energy companies claim to be 100% green tariffs but when you dig a little deeper you may be dismayed to find they’re not.)

If you’ve got a workplace pension, and savings or investments, make sure you’re not investing in fossil fuel extraction, deforestation or anything that depletes the Earth’s resources. There are some great green investment funds out there now that give the same returns, so there’s no excuse not to switch.

Ditch single-use plastic whenever you can. Download the Refill app, get refilling, and take your own containers to work for lunch, or to the supermarket or local shops to fill with deli items instead of pre-packaged ones.

Oh and eat a predominantly plant-based diet. If you don’t want to go veggie or vegan, aim for this general rule. Red meat no more than once a month, fish no more than once every two weeks (unless you live on the coast and know your local fisherpeople) and chicken no more than once a week.

And finally, fly less. Like really, really, hardly at all.

If there was one message that you'd want an audience to take away from your speech, what would it be?

For each person in the audience to feel a sense, an excitement even, of their power to change the world.

And finally, Natalie, what's next for you?

Aside from my work with City to Sea, I’ll be touring the book throughout 2020, giving talks and workshops around the UK and Europe (by train!) and no doubt scheming up some new ways to help people fall ever more in love with this wonderful planet we get to call home.

To book, or for more info. on any of our speakers, call us on +44 (0)20 7607 7070 or email us at .

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