30 May Ocean Heroes: Maria Westerbos, Plastic Soup Foundation
Maria Westerbos is a veritable powerhouse of a woman. Her organisation, Plastic Soup Foundation (PSF), founded in 2011, is one of the leaders in the field, working on this problem from all angles: grassroots campaigning, educating the public through essential information, through entertaining media and through a network of partners and experts.
I met Maria about a year and a half ago at a conference, and I was lucky to work with her again at the IUCN World Conservation Congress last September. Her energy and work ethic is contagious. I hope you enjoy this interview where we talked about starting up the Plastic Soup Foundation, the challenges facing us today, and the importance of women in the fight against the plastic soup.
AM: Hi Maria! Thanks for making the time to talk today. So for you personally, what was your journey to become interested in this topic?
MW: I worked in the television world for over 25 years, at the end as executive producer. In 2007, I asked a freelance researcher to look into all problems of our time. He started looking into all issues we have and identified innovative solutions to almost all of them, though there are many solutions that exist which we don’t yet apply. He then came to me with two problems that could not be solved: the plastic soup and the disappearance of bees. I picked the plastic soup, because I was so astonished by the scale of it. It ended up being the last television event I did: Time 2 Act. I gave up my whole career, I stopped with telly, went on a world trip and visited people who were already working on this issue like Charles Moore and Marcus Eriksen. When I came home I decided that I would dedicate my life to the plastic soup. It took two years to start Plastic Soup Foundation, and now it’s a fast-growing front-runner in the world of environmental organisations dealing with the soup. And I’m very proud of that.
AM: That’s a fascinating story! You guys at Plastic Soup Foundation have such a strong communication strategy and you really know how to engage the public on these important issues. As someone from the communications world, you’re coming at this from a very fresh angle.
MW: Yes, exactly. I worked in media for years, so I know media.. Half of the team from PSF is from communications world – they write, they make films, they can communicate in all kinds of ways. We built a team whose passion is the environment but whose skills lie in communication.
AM: Very interesting approach. So your most well-known campaign is probably Beat the Microbead. Where did that idea come from, and what was the process to get to that finished, polished phone application?
MW: When I was with Charlie [Moore] in 2009, he told me that there were plastics in cosmetics and that I should go back home and do something about it. And if Charlie tells you to do something, then you do it. So we decided to beat the microbead, but no one knew the problem with microbeads back then. So we decided to start by telling mothers that there is plastic in their kids’ toothpaste. And from that strategy, everything came together. If you do something on the right moment with the right humour, with the right fun and the right people – the world embraces it. So that’s how it happened. It started with a picture of a woman and her kid and toothpaste. And then we made video clips, started engaging the public, and then we decided to build an app.
AM: And it’s been a massive success – it’s often a first step for people who are getting involved in changing their plastic footprint. In terms of your relationship with the industry, what is your philosophy on that? Do you like to have them on board and as partners or are you fighting against them?
MW: In tackling this problem,, you have science , you have industry , you have policy and you have people. If you want to involve the industry then you need to have proof in the form of solid science. So we always first take care that everything we say is absolutely correct. Then we go to the industry and we say “please industry, do something with this.” And if they say no, and many at first did say no, that it was impossible to prove that it was their product, or that they weren’t willing to work with us. So then we said – no problem! And we went to the public. And that’s how we do things. Unfortunately policy-makers have a close relationship with industry so they can be the last to make a change.
So today we are working on microfibers and we are doing the same – we’ve been asking the industry already for a year to deal with these fibres and act on this issue, but they are very stubborn and they say they are not sure about the quality of our information. European-financed research actually shows that we are very much correct – so now we are out there and asking the audience to do something and help us, through telly and communication tools.
AM: That’s interesting, I think that is the way to do it – offer them the opportunity, and if they choose not to engage then you can’t work with them.
MW: Then we do something else – we mobilise the public. And especially women. Women change the world. You just have to tell them what’s happening. If you tell them that they may be polluting fish through the products they purchase and that the fish is on the plates of their children, it no longer becomes convenient if it’s such a threat. .
AM: That’s definitely the right tactic – to hone in on what people are interested in or what they really care about. Thank you so much for your time Maria! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
MW: Yes, please keep supporting the Plastic Soup Foundation. Let’s beat the microfiber this time. If we want a healthy future for our kids, we need to join forces and create change: big time!