Plastic Free July: Rebecca Prince-RuizPlastic Free July: Rebecca Prince-Ruiz

Story: icebreaker
Photos: Plastic Free July

July 19, 2019

From grassroots campaign to global game-changer, Plastic Free July now includes 120 million people across 170 countries. We spoke with founder and Executive Director Rebecca Prince-Ruiz ahead of this year’s event to discover what drives her work to help create a world without plastic waste.

What drives your passion to reduce plastic waste?
I always felt like using plastic was fine; it had the recycling symbol on it. But when I visited a recycling center and saw the sheer volume of the waste we create and the complex energy and intensive process to deal with that, it made me realize the best thing I could do was to use less of it. I’m really motivated by sharing the story of what I’ve seen in our waste system. I’m convinced that we cannot recycle our way out of this problem. We need to fundamentally and radically change the way we use these materials which are designed to last forever.

You talk about the indigestible truth. What is that?
The indigestible truth is that pretty much every piece of plastic that we have ever used is still out there somewhere. You hear all these statistics like, “This bag will take 400 years to break down,” but the fact is that it doesn’t break down. It just breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces. I don’t want that to be my legacy of being on this planet. I don’t want to be remembered for my waste and the impact that I’ve had. I really don’t want to be using this stuff that’s going to be there for my children’s children and generations and generations to come. I’m not plastic-free but every time I refuse something, I just know that that’s one less piece that could potentially end up in our environment.

How did you start Plastic Free July?
After the visit to the recycling facility, I went to put my recycling out that night, and I just thought, “How have I come to have all these items? I know where they’re going.” I thought the best thing I could do was to not put anything in that bin. I’m half Spanish and quite impulsive and I went to work the next day and I said, “I’m going plastic-free next month. Who wants to join me?”

How has the movement grown?
That first year, in 2011, 40 of my friends and colleagues joined in. And since then it’s grown by word of mouth; there’s been incredible momentum. Last year, 120 million people from over 170 countries participated. I think that really just shows that there is such a high level of concern about this issue. Plastic Free July gives people something they can do which is practical, it is positive, they can make a difference. We’re not about getting a handful of people who can fit their landfill waste in a jar. We’re about getting a thousand people, a hundred thousand people, a million people to just reduce their waste by five to ten per cent, and start by taking those small steps.

Tell us about the dilemma bag and how you used it as a way to support each other in that first year.
The dilemma bag was what we started doing when we started Plastic Free July. It was our way to keep track of the campaign and see what impact it was having. We kept all of the single-use plastics that we couldn’t avoid for the month and then we got together each week as a group and shared those items. It was a great way for us to discuss solutions because we didn’t have all the answers. When I started I actually found it much more challenging than I originally thought.

Now that we are all becoming aware of single-use plastics, what’s the next wave of single-use and the next level of understanding that we need to shift on to?
It’s a good question. I think we’re all aware of the bags and the water bottles and the cups and the straws, and I think there’s real change happening there. The next thing is around packaging and the need to keep this material in a circular economy. I think we need to follow the European example and look at the minimum mandatory recycled content in all packaging. But it’s cheaper and easier for businesses to produce and the manufacturers to use virgin plastic than it is to use recycled content, so we need to set a level playing field there for businesses. But we also need to look at all the other ways that we are using plastic that are much more insidious that are escaping into our environment; such as the plastic in our clothing, the plastics in our teabags. Plastic is getting into our environment and into our bodies and I think it’s really important that we start to tackle those as well.

What are your top plastic-free swaps?
I have a few top ones: reusable produce bags; bath soaps – switch from liquid soap and liquid shampoo to bath soap and shampoo; choosing natural fibers in clothing.

What’s your vision from here?
The vision of the Plastic Free Foundation is a world without plastic waste. So, my vision is to get that message out to the wider audience – not just with the already eco-aware and converted – I want to take it to the people on the street, the mainstream. We need to be careful to not lull ourselves into a false sense of security that we’ve actually resolved this problem by sharing images of plastic pollution in the ocean and reacting by just banning plastic bags. We can’t just substitute single-use plastic for single-use some other material, so the solutions need to beat the problem.

"I'm convinced that we cannot recycle our way out of this problem. We need to fundamentally and radically change the way we use these materials."

Reusable produce bags made from recycled plastic drink bottles.

Reusable produce bags made from recycled plastic drink bottles.

Buying unpackaged produce helps you reduce your plastic waste.

Buying unpackaged produce helps you reduce your plastic waste.

Rebecca inspires change around the world through events and talks.

Rebecca inspires change around the world through events and talks.

Plastic-free bathroom ideas using bamboo, wood, and paper packaging and refillable products.

Plastic-free bathroom ideas using bamboo, wood, and paper packaging and refillable products.