We recently chatted to Kathryn Nelson, AKA The Plastic Free Mermaid, about why she’s so passionate about a reduced-plastic lifestyle and how we can take these principles into the outdoors.
Have you ever taken on Plastic Free July? Avoiding plastic for a whole month is a damn tricky challenge. The stuff is literally everywhere. So imagine trying to not use plastic for ten whole years. That’s exactly what The Plastic Free Mermaid has achieved.
Kathryn’s the author of ‘I Quit Plastics’, a guide to living a plastic-free life. She’s an avid activist who’s lobbied for bans on plastic bags both in Australia and overseas.
Kathryn currently works to educate people on how to live a life with less waste, in particular through her social media channels. I recently chatted to her about her amazing feat of ten years without using plastic and how we can reduce our plastic use in the outdoors.
Amy Fairall: Kathryn, your main motivation for taking on a plastic free lifestyle is because of the ocean. Tell us about why the ocean is so special to you and how it’s under threat.
Kathryn Nelson: I surf, sail, freedive, and love to spend time near the water. Like for most of us, it’s incredibly calming, and helps me put everything into perspective.
The vast horizon reminds me how small I am, and the diversity in even small rock pools reminds me how special all life on our planet is and how fortunate we are to live in and be nourished by such an interconnected ecosystem.
I find such wonder, awe, joy, and humility in my experiences with the ocean. The ocean is certainly responsible for my deep connection with nature, one that has helped steer my life continuously back to conservation work, despite the programming I grew up with in the US, societal pressures, or my own trip-ups.
As for the threat to the ocean, where to begin… it’s under a myriad of threats.
We all know that ice caps are melting and causing sea levels to rise; temperatures are increasing, causing the reefs to bleach; fish are being pulled out of the ocean in unsustainable ways, meaning they’re unable to replenish their populations; and our use of plastic for single-use items is creating pollution from land to sea and back again.
Large, durable, weather-resistant fishing equipment is also getting tangled and left behind at sea, which results in wildlife being entangled, and soft plastics are breaking up into microplastics that are making their way into human bodies.
What natural environments are most under threat from excessive plastic waste and what are the different ways this issue is affecting them?
I’d say our bodies are most under threat, as well as our wildlife.
We know that soft plastics are breaking up into microplastics and these are making their way into the food chain. Microplastics act like an estrogenic, meaning they negatively impact our endocrine and reproductive systems when consumed.
We need to take responsibility for this, not only by minimising our exposure to plastics to minimise our risk from these diseases, but also by educating others on the harm of plastic and microplastics.
I don’t think people realise just how toxic plastic is to our bodies.
Once we adjust how we think about plastic and its impact on and in our bodies, we can push for practices that prevent avid plastic use and preserve our health.
Taking a wider lens, plastic nets and fishing equipment are often abandoned and left at sea. As fishing equipment is meant to withstand harsh weather conditions it’s particularly durable and weather resistant. Not only do they harm our wildlife but they can stay in the ocean for years and years, creating a wave of lasting damage.
10 years plastic-free is an incredibly impressive feat and it couldn’t be an easy one! But how viable is it for people to make this lifestyle shift, particularly those who are facing time and financial pressures?
Every piece of plastic ever made still exists, so every single bit of plastic that you refuse to use matters, and makes a difference.
We cannot expect all plastic to disappear overnight, but we can participate in building movement towards positive action.
Do not shame, guilt or pressure yourself. Do what you can. Pick one thing, like bringing your own cup to coffee shops, and let this be the habit you build. Then, take on another habit.
We save money with this lifestyle and it’s actually a far simpler way to live.
Do you have any tips for helping reduce plastic waste while on adventures or exploring outdoors?
– Pack your snacks in advance and use beeswax wraps, small glass jars (when safe to do so) or metal tins, full stop.
– Use (and reuse) small tins on your hikes, for snacks or storing mosquito repellent, because they’re quite lightweight.
– You always want to pack light when hiking and adventuring so I like to pre-mix a lot of my food. For example, I put spices, chia seeds, flax seeds and nuts in one jar so it’s ready to go and then I simply sprinkle it on into the pan for each morning’s breakfast, saving time and packaging by having all my ingredients in one ready-made batch.
– I do the same with my dinners while camping. I’ll bring lentils and rice and put all the accompanying spices in the same container so I don’t have to use separate packages and can reduce the amount I’m carrying.
Read more: Could You Hike Without Single Use Plastic?
We know a change in consumer behaviour can make a difference, but ultimately it’s big companies who are producing this plastic in the first place. How can we influence them to change their plastic habits too?
We know big companies can see that people are trending towards environmentally friendly products, meaning there’s never been a better time to push for what we believe in and push big companies to change.
The best way for us (as consumers) to drive change is to speak up and share our message by communicating to companies through email or social media and calling them out as much as possible when we can see bad practices taking place.
This includes greenwashing. I do my best to do the research and find products everyone can count on. But it’s rarer and rarer with such murky supply chains and misleading marketing. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Be empowered as a buyer.
It’s frustrating and thankless when you end up the bad guy informing companies that their ‘eco’ product is actually not that eco and they should probably change their website, branding, and marketing. But I celebrate progress over perfection, and above all, humble, honest transparency so we can all make informed decisions.
Basically, our message is that we don’t want plastic packaging, we don’t want Styrofoam packaging, we don’t want synthetic clothing, we don’t want electronics wrapped in 20 layers of plastic! We must communicate this to companies directly and effectively and keep sharing what we believe in.
Photos thanks to @plasticfreemermaid