09 May Ocean Heroes: Heidi Taylor, Tangaroa Blue
Hi everyone! I hope you had restful breaks over Easter and you’re excited about the weather changing to summer.
As I’ve mentioned a few times before, tackling plastic is not only my passion project but also my career! I’ve worked on this issue of plastic pollution from several different angles: on business policy and closed loop cycles, on environmental education, on government policy, on recycling infrastructure solutions… Long story short, it’s been a wild ride with lots of learning experiences.
The most special part of working in this field is the other people who have dedicated their lives to solving this problem. I’m introducing a new series today called Ocean Heroes, where I’ll be interviewing people who are inspiring, smart and dedicated to making our planet safer, cleaner and better for future generations. I’m hoping you’ll see what makes them tick, why the work they’re doing is so vitally important, and inspire you to engage with them! If you’re in the area, why not get in touch to volunteer, or donate online to expand their available resources? Every little helps!
So without further ado, to kick off our Ocean Heroes series, I present my interview with Heidi Taylor, Managing Director of Tangaroa Blue Foundation, an Australian organisation that works on all things marine debris. I first heard about Heidi’s work through a coral reef scientist I met while I was working in the Maldives and later had the chance to meet her at the IUCN Conservation Congress in a session on plastic pollution solutions. Her work and dedication to this problem are fierce and they are fighting this problem in so many exciting and important ways.
Tangaroa Blue Foundation is a wonderful organisation that is tackling this problem from all angles. They believe that “if all we do is clean-up, that is all we will ever do.” Through their program, the Australian Marine Debris Initiative (AMDI), Tangaroa Blue has created a massive network of volunteers, communities, organisations and schools that contribute to the AMDI and work to stop litter at its source. With the provision of resources and support, Tangaroa Blue helps communities take care of their coastal environments, and work with industry and government to scale up solutions to effect even larger change.
AM: Hi Heidi! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I’m interested to hear, what was your personal journey to become interested in this topic?
HT: I was brought up in an outdoorsy family with a Mum that was recycling before anybody else was really recycling! I was brought up to be conscious of that and conscious of what we were seeing and doing outdoors. I spent a lot of time in national parks and fostered a strong connection to the environment. I’ve been a dive instructor for 17 years and as the years go by I’ve seen more and more trash in the water and come back from hikes and walks outdoors with armfuls of rubbish. And I wondered – why isn’t this problem being talked about more? Nowadays, the awareness level is very high but the solution is not to collect, but to understand why trash is there and how we can stop it upstream.
AM: You know, it’s interesting – most of the people I’ve spoken to about their environmentalism have said that time outdoors or time spent in nature was the main factor that led to their passion for nature and their interest in defending the environment. I think that it’s so vital to get kids outside and to make sure they love nature before we ask them to invest in changing their habits or their families’ habits. So tell me, how did the Tangaroa Blue Foundation start?
HT: In 2002 or 2003, I was a dive instructor organising underwater clean ups to collect rubbish in the area. My partner suggested that I keep everything I find in a month in the backyard and call the media and show them what I had collected. We ended up getting a call from the landlord because of the terrible smell! But essentially we had this issue – how do you document the waste and show the extent of the problem while recording valuable data. In the first instance we brought on people who were connected to the ocean who could help us collect waste and we’d debrief afterwards with workshops on how best to record the information. We brainstormed strategies to reduce waste at the source. This lead to our first successful Source Reduction Plan which was a change in government legislation banning packing tape on commercial and recreational fishing vessels across the state of Western Australia.
AM: As you collected all this information and started this movement, did you have any resistance? Were people in industry unwilling to see their part to play in this issue?
HT: You know, when people really started to see how much was out there they really understood the scale of the problem. There were a few people who, when they came to clean with us on a stretch of beach, said “hey, there’s nothing really here”. But once you start to look, you can never not see that stuff again. And people like to get involved and be outdoors to help with the cause.
The biggest barrier is getting industry to recognise when they are contributing to the problem and how to encourage compliance to hold them accountable for their part. Every source reduction plan that we’ve put in place engages a different stakeholder group – so for each problem area, we evaluate the issue at every point.
We’ve just introduced the Operation Clean Sweep program into Australia, which engages the plastics industry to aim for zero plastic resin pellet (nurdles) loss into the environment. We are conservationists, but each stakeholder may be encouraged to join us by different drivers. The environmental sector can sometimes get lost in believing that everyone should care about turtles. But we need to engage on each stakeholder’s specific drivers and recognise that appealing to their language and their concerns means you’re more likely to bring them on as a partner. In the Operation Clean Sweep model, the narrative is: you’ll save money, you’re less likely to be fined and you’ll create a safer workplace. We have a common goal here – we want to minimise the loss of pellets.. No one should be the enemy in this problem, we need to find and create partnerships that will allow you to tackle the problem from all angles.
AM: Do you often have the same people coming to volunteer and give their time? How do you bring in “new blood” and expand from environmentally-minded people to the people who may not be so inclined?
HT: The AMDI Source Reduction Plan framework means we work with a very broad and expanding stakeholder group which allows us to draw new volunteers and partners into AMDI activities all the time. . As for volunteers, we have different types of people who are interested in different parts of our work. We have people who love clean ups but hate handling data, we have people who hate clean ups but are total data geeks! It’s all about diversifying the activities and getting different groups of people involved.
AM: That’s definitely the right way to do it – let people get involved with what they are good and what they enjoy doing! So, one final question from me: what do you think is the single biggest key to reducing plastic pollution? What do you think s holding us back from living in a trash-free world?
HT: Marine debris is a symptom of a much bigger problem. When we try to solve one symptom without looking at the bigger problem, we’ll only have very limited success. Humans want everything to be cheap, convenient and fast. There are many things that are a consequence of that lifestyle, and marine debris is one of them. What are our values, and what are we doing as a species to this planet?
We need companies to be thinking about what they are actually selling and the impacts of those items. They need to be considering the environment and not just their bottom line. We need the government to push for change and not just work towards getting re-elected. We need people to move away from our mindset of wanting the latest model of everything, even when their old things work just fine. We seriously just need to buy less stuff and start consuming with care.
The way of making most people change is when they’re forced to change and when something affects their daily life. When we get to that point, it’ll be too late. Things are changing immensely on this issue but we need to make sure that they’re fast enough to make the change we need.
AM: Amazing! It’s been great to talk. Thanks so much for your time, Heidi! Any last thoughts you want to share?
HT: Just wanted to say thank you so much to everyone that’s volunteered and supported Tangaroa Blue and the AMDI, we are definitely making a difference, but there’s still a long way to go! .
You can check out Heidi and her team’s work at http://www.tangaroablue.org/. If you’re in Australia, link up to their massive volunteer network!